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.