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August 10, 2010

"119 N.C. death row inmates allege racial bias"

The title of this post is the headline of this local piece from North Carolina providing the latest litigation update on the interesting death penalty story developing in the Tar Heel state.  Here are the basics:

Dozens of inmates around North Carolina – both black and white – are challenging their death sentences under a new law that allows them to argue racial bias.

The office of North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper said some 119 inmates have filed a claim under the Racial Justice Act ahead of Tuesday’s deadline. A spokeswoman for Cooper said there were more claims expected among the 159 North Carolina convicts on death row.

Under the terms of the Racial Justice Act in 2009, convicts can use statistical evidence to argue bias in their sentencing. The law allows judges to consider evidence that one racial group is being punished more harshly than members of other racial groups.

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Comments

This is more of a farce than I thought it would be. Among the 119 are the kind of offenders who would get death regardless of race, like serial killer Henry Wallace and a man who tortured and killed an elderly woman for her pin number. Not to mention at least 20 WHITE inmates. Blanche Moore has joined too, in spite of the fact that as a white woman she was favored over other offenders. That's why women account for less than 1% of executions but 15% of murders.

Posted by: MikeinCT | Aug 10, 2010 10:59:37 PM

Can the statistics be in their favor, and they still get to appeal? How does one file an appeal against a privilege, the opposite of an injury?

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Aug 11, 2010 7:21:44 AM

(1) The statistics do not favor Blanche Taylor Moore. She killed a white victim, and the statistics say that made her two to three times more likely to be capitally prosecuted.
(2) When prosecutors peremptorily challenge black jurors at more than twice the rate of white jurors in all capital trials, regardless of the defendant's race, a white defendant's case is no less tainted by the impact of race in the jury selection than a black defendant's case would be. It is not just about having jurors of the defendant's own race as it is about having a fair cross-section.
(3) North Carolina's RJA is not simply about vindicating any individual defendant's rights. It is certainly not just about protecting black defendants. It is just as much an attempt by the people, through our duly elected legislators, to try to ensure that race plays no part in the operation of our system of capital punishment. That is why the statute expressly provides that a finding that "death sentences were sought or imposed more frequently as punishment for capital offenses against persons of one race than as punishment of capital offenses against persons of another race" mandates relief under the statute. That is also why the statute provides for relief if racial impact is shown at the county, judicial district, judicial division or statewide level.

Posted by: Dan | Aug 11, 2010 9:13:10 AM

@Dan
1. The race of the victim is irrelevant. As a woman, she is less likely to face death regardless of crime or victim and more likely to gain a lesser sentence through appeal or clemency. That too is an irrefutable statistic.
2. Fair enough, but would that change anything other than appearances? Black jurors vote for death all the time. Look at the cases of Tookie Williams, Troy Davis and Mumia Abu Jamal.
3. I know what it is an attempt at but the result will be years more of appeals and tens of millions of dollars expended for men and women who are undeniably guilty of a terrible crime.

Posted by: MikeinCT | Aug 11, 2010 11:30:18 AM

Mike,
The race of the victim is not irrelevant. The statute under which these claims are filed, N.C. Gen. Stat. 15A-2011, expressly makes it relevant.

Posted by: Dan | Aug 11, 2010 12:03:13 PM

@Dan
It's irrelevant when inmates with victims of a different race have been sentenced to death for a similar crime.

The problem here is that you can make an argument that EVERY death sentence is unfair given the stats.

Black killer White victim: I was prosecuted because I am Black and my victim is White
Black killer Black victim: I was prosecuted because I am Black
White killer White victim: I was prosecuted because my victim is White
White killer Black victim: I was prosecuted to make the system look impartial (yes, this has been tried)
All male inmates: Women receive death at a much lower rate for the exact same or worse crimes.

Posted by: MikeinCT | Aug 11, 2010 2:59:33 PM

@ MIke: You write: "The problem here is that you can make an argument that EVERY death sentence is unfair given the stats."

Yes, that is quite a problem. The question is whether we should therefore ignore the problem or whether we should do something about it.

But your categories don't do justice to the seriousness of the claims. As Mike points out, these claims are not solely about the race of the defendant and race of the victim, they're also about the winking that goes on around the exclusion of nonwhite jurors. Those are an important category of those who are filing under the RJA.

Posted by: dm | Aug 11, 2010 4:18:42 PM

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