NC Republicans Propose Racial Injustice Act

Four Republican House members introduced a bill yesterday designed to repeal North Carolina’s landmark Racial Justice Act.  Representatives Burr (Montgomery, Stanly, Union), Stevens (Alleghany, Surry), Ingle (Alamance), and Stam (Wake) have sponsored House Bill 615 in an effort to short-circuit ongoing litigation and prevent the courts from answering the ultimate question posed by the RJA: does race play a role in the administration of the death penalty in North Carolina?

These legislators have good reason to fear a close look at racism in the death penalty.  In Rep. Stam’s home county of Wake, prosecutors are 2.6 times more likely to remove a qualified African-American from the jury than a similarly situated white person.  (Many people say that there are fewer blacks on capital juries because black people don’t believe in the death penalty, but the “qualified” jurors considered here include only persons who could consider imposing a sentence of death.)  A statistical analysis showed that the probability of this disparity occurring by chance is less than four in ten billion.  A different statistical study showed similar rates of discrimination against black citizens across the state.

A judge in Forsyth County recently ruled that the Racial Justice Act is constitutional.  The bill that seeks to repeal the RJA falsely states that the RJA is not in compliance with the US Supreme Court’s decision in McCleskey v. Kemp.  The 1987 McCleskey decision held that a death row petitioner could not rely solely on a statistical study showing that race affected Georgia’s system of capital punishment in violation of federal law.  However, the McCleskey court specifically invited state legislatures to pass statutes allowing for the consideration of statistical studies to show that racial bias existed in violation of state law. McCleskey v. Kemp, 481 U.S. 279, 319 (1987).  The Racial Justice Act embraced the challenge set forth by McCleskey; it does not violate it.

There is nothing to fear from the truth.  The legislature should resist this effort to repeal the RJA and allow the courts to complete the task they started last year – ensuring that the death penalty is administered fairly and free of racial bias.  Real leadership means not searching for ways to get out of dealing with difficult issues.  Support for HB 615 (The Racial Injustice Act) is support for willful ignorance, and support for a system that pushes men and women toward execution despite obvious cracks in the hull.  House Republicans are truly flying Southwest on this one.

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4 Responses to NC Republicans Propose Racial Injustice Act

  1. deathwatch says:

    Press release from the Center for Death Penalty Litigation:

    NEW HOUSE BILL WOULD UNDERMINE NORTH CAROLINA’S RACIAL JUSTICE EFFORTS

    State legislators on Monday – the anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – introduced a bill that, if passed, would essentially repeal the groundbreaking N.C. Racial Justice Act, enacted in 2009 to root out racial bias in death penalty trials.

    House Bill 615, deceptively named “An Act to Reform the Racial Justice Act,” guts the Racial Justice Act, rendering it meaningless.

    “Supporters of this bill are calling it a reform,” said Tye Hunter, Executive Director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, a non-profit law firm in Durham that represents death row inmates. “In truth, it is an attempt to destroy a promise made to the citizens of North Carolina that we would examine whether racial bias plays a role in our criminal justice system,” said Hunter. “Racial bias has, in fact, been revealed, and now they want to ignore the truth.”

    The Racial Justice Act allows death row inmates to have their cases reexamined for evidence of racial bias. If a judge finds that an inmate’s punishment was influenced by bias, the inmate’s sentence can be converted to life without the possibility of parole.

    No prisoners will be released from prison because of the Racial Justice Act.

    About 150 death row inmates have filed claims under the act. Prosecutors and some lawmakers have claimed that the RJA would be too expensive and cumbersome.

    However, so far, all litigation has been handled efficiently in front of a single Forsyth County superior court judge, who recently found that the safeguards provided by the General Assembly to ensure that race plays no role in death sentences satisfied the constitution.

    “Some legislators want us to think this is about saving the taxpayers money,” said Ken Rose, a senior attorney with the Center for Death Penalty Litigation. “But the truth is it would be cheaper and fairer to let these defendants have their day in court. The untangling of the repeal of the Racial Justice Act will ultimately be more expensive and burdensome to the justice system than letting the ongoing litigation proceed.”

    The attempted repeal of the act ignores recent evidence that North Carolina’s capital punishment system is still strongly influenced by race. Three separate studies released last summer found that those who kill white victims are more likely to get death sentences and that qualified black jurors are being systematically excluded from capital trials.

    Of those currently on death row, 33 prisoners were tried by all-white juries and another 40 had only one person of color on their jury.

    “Now that we have seen this evidence, we can no longer pretend that our courts are color-blind,” Hunter said. “We cannot ignore demonstrated racial discrimination in a system that decides who lives and dies.”

    Efforts to end racial bias in North Carolina’s justice system have strong popular support. In a November poll, 58 percent of the registered voters surveyed said defendants should not be executed if a judge finds that racial bias played a role in their trials.

  2. Ronald L. Hartzler says:

    I just finished reading a small article that was updated June of 2011 that gave the percentages of the different races that were currently on death row. the article stated that 29.8 % were white, 38.8% were African American, and 30.1% were Latino Americans. With those statistics, I really don’t see where all this crap about racial injustice is.

  3. deathwatch says:

    Mr. Hartzler, I don’t know where you got those statistics, but they are not correct. North Carolina’s death row is 39% white, 53% black, 5% Native American, and 3% other.

    In addition, the race of the defendant is not the only factor considered by the Racial Justice Act. It also takes into account the race of the victim and the race of the jurors.

  4. Ronald L. Hartzler says:

    If I gave some incorrect statistics, then I apologize for that mistake on my part. However, my feelings on the death penalty remain the same; I feel that one of the main problems that we have here in N.C, as far as our penal system is concerned, is that we don’t execute these people who have been convicted and sentenced to death. The alternative to the death penalty is, as you stated, life without parole; which is even worse because then you’re expecting the N.C taxpayer to “foot the bill” to house, clothe, and feed these worthless members of our society for the next 30, 40, 50 years or more! My feelings are this: execute them as “your” elected legal officials and our peer group (jury) deemed “fair and just”.

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