Save the Racial Justice Act

December 7, 2011

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

Media roundup

ACLU blog


The Daily Tarheel

Independent Weekly

Mother Jones


Executions – December 2011

December 1, 2011

6 – Gary Haugen (OR – stayed)

Racial Justice Media Roundup

November 28, 2011

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.

Local papers:

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)

Hembree Sentenced to Death; Two Robinson Trials Continue

November 21, 2011

In Gaston County, Danny Hembree was sentenced to death for the murder of Heather Catterton.  Although the victim’s family supported the death penalty, her father recognized, “This was a no-win situation. They’ve lost a son. We’ve lost a daughter.”

The Robeson County trial of Larry Robinson continues without media coverage.

The State is presenting evidence in the Stanly County trial of William Robinson.  Robinson is accused of shooting a man during a 2006 robbery.

State Moves to Recuse Black Judge from Racial Justice Act Motions

November 10, 2011

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.

Media here, here, here, and here.

Second-Degree Murder for Gross, Life Without Parole for Mills

November 7, 2011

Two death penalty trials noted in DW’s last post have resolved with a sentence less than death.

In Buncombe County, a jury rejected first-degree murder and instead found Brandon Lee Gross guilty of second-degree murder.  He will be sentenced to a term of years.  Still no word from the local paper or TV stations.

In Alamance County, Dennis Alan Mills pleaded guilty and accepted a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.  Prosecutors alleged that Mills shot two men to death following an argument over a sandwich.  Mills previously served time for the shooting death of his uncle.

NC Capital Trial Update 11-1-11

November 1, 2011

Six death penalty trials started in North Carolina over the last few weeks.

Larry Robinson (Robeson) and Brandon Gross (Buncombe) – Progress unknown.

The guilt-or-innocence phase is wrapping up in the Gaston County trial of Danny Hembree.  Prosecutors allege that Hembree strangled Heather Catterton in 2009, while defense attorneys say Catterton died of a drug overdose.

In Alamance County, efforts were underway to pick a jury for the sentencing phase of Dennis Mills‘ trial when Mills moved to withdraw his guilty plea for two 2010 shootings.

The Guilford County trial of Isaam Chaplin came to an abrupt halt when the prosecution suddenly located what they believe to be the murder weapon.  A gun seized by police in another county came up as a “hit” in a police database, prompting the judge to delay the trial indefinitely while both sides examine the new evidence.

Jury selection has just gotten underway in the Stanly County trial of William Robinson.  Robinson is accused of a 2006 robbery-murder in Albemarle.


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