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February 10, 2011

State judge refuses to overturn Racial Justice Act in North Carolina

As detailed in this local article, which is headlined "Racial Justice Act for death row inmates survives court challenge," prosecutors in North Carolina have failed in an initial attempt to derail litigation based on the state's new Racial Justice Act.  Here are some of the particulars:

The fledgling Racial Justice Act survived its first challenge when a Forsyth County judge rejected contentions by prosecutors that the law was too sweeping to comply with the N.C. Constitution.  Judge William Z. Wood issued his findings today in Forsyth County Superior Court....

The Racial Justice Act, passed narrowly along party lines in 2009, provides people convicted and accused in capital cases a legal avenue for challenging their plights using statistics and anecdotal evidence to bolster racial bias claims.  Errol Duke Moses and Carl Stephen Moseley, death row inmates since the 1990s, are using statistics and findings from a Michigan State University study to claim racial imbalance and bias played a role in their trials and sentencing in Forsyth County.

Their cases are the first of the 154 death row inmates seeking relief under the law to get to a courtroom.  "This vindicates the decision of the legislature to examine whether racial bias is tainting death sentences in this state," said Ken Rose, an attorney from the Center for Death Penalty Litigation representing Moses.

Earlier this week, prosecutors tried to pick apart the law, saying it was too sweeping to apply fairly across the state.  David Hall, an assistant district attorney in Forsyth County, argued that the law does not specify whether the courts should consider race of the inmate, race of the victim or race of the jurors when considering bias claims.  He voiced outrage that Moseley, a white inmate convicted of killing white victims, was alleging racial bias played a part in his sentencing....

With Wood's decision today, lawyers expect to get to the crux of the complaints in late March, when the next hearing is set.  "I'm excited to be getting into the merits of this and that is — is the death penalty marred by discrimination?," Rose said.

Though the law survived its first test in the courts, it could be in jeopardy in the political arena.  Republicans who gained control of the state Senate and House in January have talked about either severely narrowing the reach of the act or repealing it all together. Lawyers representing the inmates and defendants with cases already in the courts said they did not know the impact such a change would have on existing claims.

February 10, 2011 at 10:04 PM | Permalink

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