Governor Beverly Perdue issued her veto of the Racial Justice Act repeal bill on December 14th. Her veto will stand, and the RJA will be preserved, unless both chambers of the General Assembly vote to override. The legislature will return to session for a single day – January 4th – to decide the issue. Under North Carolina law, the override will not succeed unless 3/5ths of present and voting members of each chamber vote in support.
It has been a little over a week since the North Carolina General Assembly voted to repeal the Racial Justice Act, a landmark piece of legislation which enabled death row inmates to challenge their sentences by showing patterns of racial discrimination in the jurisdictions where they were tried.
Since then, Republican lawmakers have been accused of ignoring undisputed evidence of racial bias in the administration of the death penalty and abusing the legislative system to sneak through legislation without public oversight.
Groups including the NC-NAACP have called on Governor Beverly Perdue to veto the bill, but there has been no word from her office as of this writing. Under North Carolina law, Governor Perdue has 30 days to issue a veto. The Governor has indicated that she will make her decision next week.
- We all deserve the truth
Defendants have alleged a pervasive pattern of racial discrimination, both in jury selection and in decisions about which cases deserve the death penalty. It has been over a year since motions were filed presenting evidence to support these claims. Since August of 2010, the ball has been in the State’s court, but prosecutors haven’t even attempted to prove that something other than race is involved.
Rather than confront the issue head on, prosecutors have tried to delay the courts. After months of ill-founded constitutional challenges and even an attempt to prevent a black judge from presiding over the matter, the first real test of the Racial Justice Act was scheduled to begin next month. Just in time, conservative lawmakers swooped in to repeal the Racial Justice Act.
Prosecutors and lawmakers have nothing to fear but the truth being heard. If the claims made under the Racial Justice Act are frivolous, no court will hesitate to throw them out. Prosecutors claim that the RJA has placed a moratorium on the death penalty, when the reality is that the only thing preventing these cases from moving forward is prosecutors’ sandbagging of the judicial process.
- The RJA is not a get out of jail free card
Prosecutors and conservative lawmakers have circulated the false rumor that a successful Racial Justice Act claim could result in death row inmates being immediately released from prison. Never mind that the statute explicitly says that the only relief available is a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.
It is constitutional for a death sentence to be converted to life without parole, even if the option of life without parole was not available at the time of the original trial. This is exactly what happens when a death row inmate is granted clemency by the governor. [For inmates sentenced prior to 1994, the jury did not have the option of life without the possibility of parole.]
Any inmate who meets the high bar of proving his claim under the Racial Justice Act will be re-sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. He will be punished, for the rest of his life, for the acts he committed, and not for the acts or omissions of anyone else. Just as justice has always intended.
Call Governor Perdue today and urge her to veto the repeal of the Racial Justice Act. The numbers for her office are (800) 662-7952 and (919) 733-2391. People of Faith Against the Death Penalty have a petition you can sign online, or you can e-mail the Governor yourself at this address
The North Carolina Senate is meeting today in an unusual short session. One issue on the table – and the chopping block – is the Racial Justice Act. The Conference of District Attorneys (in a letter the NAACP contends is inaccurate and misleading) has urged legislators to effectively repeal the landmark bill. Defense attorneys have submitted a letter of their own, urging the General Assembly to preserve inmates’ right to present evidence of racial bias in the administration of the death penalty.
More to come as this story develops.
Asheville Citizen-Times: Racial Justice Act ‘Fix’ Would in Essence End It
Fayetteville Observer: Prosecutors See Danger in Sentence Reviews
Wilmington Star-News: Effort to Repeal Racial Justice Act Would Tip the Scales the Wrong Way
Winston-Salem Journal: District Attorneys Call for End to Racial Justice Act
Letters to the Editor/Op-Eds/Blog Posts:
District Attorneys v. The Law by James Coleman (Duke law professor)
Racial Justice Act is Necessary by Hannah Autry
Nothing New in Death Row Debate by Scott Mooneyham
Our Judicial System Should be Color Blind by George Burazer
Racial Justice Act Should be Defended by Cecil Bothwell (Asheville city councilman)
In Defense of NC’s Racial Justice Act by scharrison @ BlueNC
Detecting Bias in Death Penalty Cases by Frank Baumgartner (UNC political science professor)
In Cumberland County today, prosecutors are arguing that Gregory Weeks, the Senior Resident Superior Court Judge for the county, should be disqualified from hearing claims under the Racial Justice Act. Weeks is a 23-year veteran of the bench – who also happens to be African-American. Of course, prosecutors aren’t saying that they want Weeks off the case because he’s black. They claim that Weeks should recuse himself because he has presided over some of the death penalty trials in question, and therefore might be a witness. If this were the State’s true motivation, it seems that they would also have moved to recuse Judge William Wood, who is presiding over Racial Justice Act claims in Forsyth County. Wood, who is white, has also been the trial judge in a death penalty case affected by the RJA.
Duke University law professor Jim Coleman says, “It looks like they’re trying to get rid of an African-American judge and have the case heard by someone who likely would not be African-American…They’re accused of manipulating the jury on the basis of race. It’s ironic that they would do something that looks like they’re trying to … manipulate the judge who would hear the case [for the same reason].”
The State made its motion on the eve of the first real test of the RJA, a hearing that was to take place before Judge Weeks on November 14th. That hearing may now be delayed. The State’s motion is highly unusual and perhaps unprecedented. Attorney Ken Rose says, “I’ve been doing this 30 years. I’ve never seen a judge recused for that reason.” Judge Weeks has retained his own lawyer, Fred Webb, to argue that it is inappropriate to call a judge as a witness under these circumstances.
The Racial Justice Act was passed in August of 2009. As required by the statute, death row inmate Marcus Robinson filed his claim under the Act in August of 2010. Now, two years out from the passage of the RJA and one year after Robinson’s petition, the State says it has not started to prepare its response and needs more time.
If the November hearing moves forward as planned, Judge Weeks will consider only the issue of whether prosecutors in Cumberland County and across the state of North Carolina removed people of color from the jury panel in an unacceptable manner. Another judge in Forsyth County is examining a separate issue related to how the race of the defendant and the race of the victim impact decisions to seek and impose the death penalty.
The Racial Justice Act allows defendants to look beyond the narrow scope of their own cases to identify patterns of behavior over time. In Robinson’s own case, prosecutors were three times more likely to excuse qualified jurors of color than qualified white jurors. This might be viewed as some kind of fluke if it were not also true that qualified black jurors were two and a half times more likely to be excluded from capital juries when every Cumberland County death penalty case is considered. Even looking at every death-sentenced case statewide over the last 20 years, there is still a clear pattern – blacks are eliminated from juries at twice the rate of whites. A sophisticated statistical study has shown that the probability of this disparity occurring in the absence of racial considerations is less than 0.0001.
Cumberland County prosecutors have had this information for a year, and have known it was coming for longer than that. At the hearing, they asked for another six months (at least) to review Robinson’s evidence and come up with some of their own. Some have speculated that the delay is intentional; that prosecutors want to push the hearing back until Judge Weeks retires or the RJA is repealed in the legislature, whichever comes first. To be sure, there are other potential explanations, but the end result is the same: justice, whatever that may be, will have to wait.
Whatever your position on the Racial Justice Act, the death penalty, or Marcus Robinson, I think we can all agree that it is time to take the next step.
Note: A “qualified juror” is someone who meets the requirements to serve on a capital jury, which includes a willingness to impose the death penalty. Thus, arguments to the effect that ‘black people just don’t support the death penalty’ do not explain the disparity.
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.
People far and wide are familiar with the Triangle – the area of North Carolina between Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill. As of today, two out of three Triangle counties have stepped back from the death penalty. Orange County (Chapel Hill) has not sent anyone to death row in the modern era. On the other hand, Wake County (Raleigh) currently has ten people on death row. This morning, Isaac Stroud, the sole death row inmate from Durham, had his sentence converted to life in prison.
A judge found Isaac Stroud mentally incompetent to assist his attorneys in his defense, and therefore ineligible for execution. Stroud, who was sentenced to death in 1995 for the slaying of his girlfriend, is the second North Carolina inmate to be declared incompetent to be executed (see Guy LeGrande.)
It has been noted that today’s re-sentencing came only after Stroud filed a motion under the Racial Justice Act. Perhaps this is an unintended benefit of the RJA – that prosecutors will take a fresh look at old cases and decide to resolve them in a manner more fair and less expensive than capital punishment. The victim’s family did not protest the decision to remove Isaac Stroud from death row. For them, justice meant that he never be released from prison.
In a hearing last week in Forsyth County Superior Court, the Racial Justice Act survived an attempt by prosecutors to have the law struck down on constitutional grounds. Says the Winston-Salem Journal:
Judge William Z. Wood of Forsyth Superior Court rejected the arguments of Forsyth County prosecutors that the Racial Justice Act, signed into law in August 2009, was too broad and vague and was subject to multiple interpretations. He was the first judge in North Carolina to hear cases involving the Racial Justice Act, and the hearings were being closely watched by prosecutors from across the state as well as supporters of the law.
The law allows death-row inmates and defendants facing the death penalty to use statistics and other evidence to prove that racial bias played a “significant factor” in their sentence or in prosecutors’ decision to pursue the death penalty. The only remedy under the law is to reduce an inmate’s sentence to life in prison.
Wood considered two Forsyth County cases involving men on death row — those of Carl Stephen Moseley and Errol Duke Moses.
As this editorial in the Fayetteville Observer points out, the existence of the RJA is only controversial to the extent that it provides a convenient distraction from North Carolina’s real problems. Statistical studies have proven that race matters – in the determination of which cases will proceed to a capital trial, in the selection of jurors to hear those cases, and in the ultimate decision to impose the death penalty. Given that evidence, our next move should not be to sweep it all under the rug by repealing the RJA in the legislature or striking it down in the courts. It’s time to take an honest look at ourselves and our system. Let the sun shine in, North Carolina.
- Executions: 0
- Persons removed from death row for other reasons: 3
- New death sentences: 4
- Capital trials not resulting in death: 9
> Persons Removed from Death Row
- Jamey Cheek (New Hanover) – Cheek was re-sentenced to life for a 1996 killing after the court found that the prosecution intentionally withheld evidence favorable to the defense at trial. This evidence was relevant to whether Cheek was present at the time of the murder. (Cheek participated in the kidnapping that led up to the killing, which could make him guilty under the felony murder theory. However, the fact that he was not present during the actual killing would likely have made a difference to the jury for sentencing purposes.) You can read the court’s order here.
- Abner Nicholson (Wilson) – Nicholson’s death sentence was converted to life after a court determined that he is mentally retarded. Nicholson was convicted in 1999 of shooting his wife and the local police chief. You can read the court’s order granting relief here.
- Kyle Berry (New Hanover) – Berry was re-sentenced to life after it was determined that the trial court committed error in refusing to allow his lawyers adequate time to investigate and present evidence of pervasive mental illness in Mr. Berry’s family. Because the jury did not know the true extent of Mr. Berry’s genetically based mental illness, they did not have all of the information they needed to accurately determine an appropriate sentence for his crime. The court’s order is here.
> Persons Sentenced to Death at Trial
- Michael Ryan (Gaston) – Fired his attorneys and asked the jury to sentence him to death. Ryan was convicted based largely on the testimony of a co-defendant who received a lesser sentence in exchange for his cooperation. The first jury to hear the case deadlocked on the question of guilt; this was Ryan’s second trial.
- Andrew Ramseur (Iredell) – Black defendant sentenced to death by an all-white jury. Ramseur killed two people during a botched store robbery. His ability to plan and control his actions was reduced by the combination of a head injury and the unknowing ingestion of a hallucinogenic drug.
- Stephen Buckner (McDowell) – Buckner was sentenced to death for a domestic triple murder. He is deeply remorseful for his actions.
- Timothy Hartford (Forsyth) – Hartford received one death sentence and one life sentence for a double homicide. Hartford is severely mentally ill, suffering from both bipolar disorder and PTSD. He was also addicted to drugs at the time of the crime. His co-defendant was allowed to plead guilty and avoid the death penalty.
> Persons Given Other Sentences at Trial
- Abdullah Shareef (Cumberland) – jury voted unanimously for life. Shareef is a paranoid schizophrenic and was held in a mental institution for six years before becoming competent enough to stand trial. He was convicted of stealing a city van and running down five people, killing one.
- Samuel Cooper (Wake) – jury voted unanimously for life. Cooper was convicted of killing five people in separate incidents spanning two years. The jury found that Cooper was mentally damaged as the result of a childhood fraught with extreme abuse.
- Alfred Willard (Mitchell) – pleaded guilty to second degree murder during trial. Willard killed his live-in girlfriend and tried to conceal her body.
- Carlos Keels (Robeson) – jury voted unanimously for life. Keels beat his girlfriend’s daughter to death.
- Demeatrius Montgomery (Mecklenburg) – court declared case non-capital after investigating officer was found to have destroyed evidence. Montgomery was accused of killing two Charlotte police officers who were responding to an unrelated call.
- Travis Ramseur (Iredell) – jury voted unanimously for life. Ramseur was convicted of killing two men and wounding a third.
- Dexter McRae (Cumberland) – jury voted unanimously for life. McRae was convicted of raping and murdering his estranged wife, stabbing her more than 50 times.
- Edwardo Wong (Catawba) – sentenced to life after jury could not reach unanimous decision. Wong was convicted of killing a state trooper during a traffic stop.
- Albert Ramos (Scotland) – pleaded guilty and accepted life sentence during trial. Ramos killed his mother and stepfather, then fled the state.
Other Significant Events
- Demario Atwater (FED) – In a North Carolina federal court, Atwater received a life sentence for the highly publicized killing of the UNC student body president.
- Alejandro Umana (FED) – Also in an NC federal court, Umana was sentenced to death for a gang-related double murder.
- Timothy Hennis (MIL) – In military court, Hennis was sentenced to death for the same crime for which he was twice tried (once sentenced to death and once acquitted) in civilian court.
- Racial Justice Act – Following last year’s passage of the RJA, pre-trial defendants and death row inmates have filed claims under the law alleging that their death sentences were sought or obtained on the basis of race. It remains to be seen how the law will ultimately be interpreted by the courts.
- State Bureau of Investigation – A blockbuster investigation by Raleigh’s News and Observer revealed widespread and systemic misconduct at the state agency charged with conducting investigations and forensic testing in criminal cases. A report commissioned by the Attorney General’s Office identified 269 defendants whose cases were affected by faulty evidence. (The report looked at one test done by one division of the SBI lab; it found an error rate of nearly 25%.)
The Racial Justice Act was meant to apply only to African-American defendants. (See statement of Halifax District Attorney Melissa Pelfrey.)
First, it would be unconstitutional to apply a particular criminal penalty only to persons of one race. Racially disproportionate application of the death penalty is the problem the RJA seeks to cure, not to cause.
Second, by its terms, the Racial Justice Act is concerned not only with the race of the defendant, but also with the race of the victim and the composition of the jury.
The Racial Justice Act has allowed defendants to delay their trials. (See this article with reference to Mecklenburg County defendant Demeatrius Montgomery.)
The judge postponed Mr. Montgomery’s trial by three months to allow for the consideration of RJA issues, but even with that delay, Mr. Montgomery’s trial will go to trial faster than the average Mecklenburg County capital case in the past eight years.
Across the state, there have been more capital trials so far this year than there were in the same period the year before the RJA passed. The Racial Justice Act has not brought the criminal justice system to a screeching halt. Slowing down the rush to trial makes it less likely that a person will be wrongfully sentenced to die.
Statistics are not relevant to whether the death penalty is applied fairly.
Statistics are commonly used to show discrimination in other kinds of cases, such as housing and employment. The RJA simply allows the court to consider the same evidence in a criminal case that it would in a different kind of lawsuit.
Furthermore, the State will have an opportunity to present its own statistics or other evidence to rebut a charge of discrimination. In the past, studies have shown that defendants who kill white victims are three times more likely to be sentenced to death than defendants who kill black victims. The RJA is the State’s opportunity to provide a race-neutral reason for why this is so.
Don’t be confused by misleading statements about the Racial Justice Act. You can read the law for yourself here.