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December 21, 2011

Heated debate continues in NC over state's Racial Justice Act

This local article, headlined "Resignation follows Perdue's veto: Lincoln, Cleveland counties DA leaves Governor's Crime Commission in protest," reports on the latest developments in North Carolina concerning the state's controversial and consequential Racial Justice Act.  Here are excerpts:

District Attorney Rick Shaffer said he meant no disrespect to Gov. Bev Perdue when he recently sent a blistering letter resigning from the Governor's Crime Commission in protest over Perdue's veto of the bill that essentially repeals the Racial Justice Act.

But he knew it was strongly worded and he had no regrets. "It warranted a forceful explanation," said Shaffer, Democratic prosecutor for Cleveland and Lincoln counties. "This is an important issue.  It was important for the governor to realize this side of the coin and the individuals involved in the criminal justice system daily trying to make the right decisions."

In the letter Shaffer sent Perdue on Dec. 15, he wrote: "You no longer have any moral authority to suggest that you strongly support the death penalty. Your action has shown that particular statement is untrue."

The (Raleigh) News & Observer reported that Perdue on Tuesday called the General Assembly back into session after the holidays to consider whether to override or let stand her veto of the bill gutting the Racial Justice Act.... The state Constitution requires that she reconvene the General Assembly to consider any vetoes that are issued while the body is out of session.

The Senate would have to take up the consideration first, since the bill originated in that chamber, and it intends to do so, according to Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger's office. Republicans have enough votes there to override the veto.  But it is highly unlikely that the House has the necessary three-fifths majority to overcome the veto....

Emotions over the issue are running high.  "When I went to Raleigh in support of the legislation which would have amended the Racial Justice Act, it was with great sadness that I listened to the victims' families describe the facts and circumstances under which their loved ones were brutally murdered," Shaffer wrote in his letter to the governor.

"Some of the cases involved white victims who were killed by white defendants convicted and sentenced to death by predominantly white juries.  One of the cases involved a black victim who was killed by a black defendant.  At least one case involved the brutal killing of a police officer who died begging for his life.  There is no reasonable person who can argue that the judgments entered in these cases were the result of racial discrimination. By your decision, you have at a minimum further delayed the victims' right to justice.  If the worst case scenario takes place you will have helped unleash violent murderers back into society."

Shaffer was one of 44 members of the Governor's Crime Commission, which influences criminal justice grant funding in the state. It includes the heads of statewide criminal justice and human services agencies, and representatives of law enforcement, the courts, the legislature and the public....

Shaffer noted in his letter to the governor that while his district has no pending claims under the Racial Justice Act, "the impact of the law as it currently stands is tremendous and devastating."  He wrote that the state Administrative Office of the Courts is helping to pay for statistical experts to help defendants with their claims, while that money should be going to help pay salaries for prosecutors across the state.

Shaffer wrote that state budget cuts have affected his office and that he had to fire two longtime, productive employees and can't give valued employees raises. "Why is this the case?" he asked.  "In part because we are spending tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars on statistical experts to help overturn death verdicts in cases where there is no question of guilt and no evidence of discrimination in the particular case in question."

Some older and newer related posts on the North Carolina Racial Justice Act:  

December 21, 2011 at 10:07 AM | Permalink


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Though I do not know much about DA Shaffer, I must say that Perdue’s initial defense of her veto was vacuous and vague, i.e.
“that the process not be infected with prejudice based on race.”

Fiscal conservatives should weigh the validity of this DA’s statement:
“we are spending tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars…to help overturn death verdicts in cases where there is no question of guilt and no evidence of discrimination in the particular case in question."

Can anyone identify a wrongful death sentence due to race in NC?

Posted by: adamakis | Dec 22, 2011 11:12:51 PM

I don't think that proponents of the Racial Justice are arguing that anyone's been sentenced to death solely on the basis of race, but rather that racial bias has inappropriately tainted the death penalty in NC, but I'm assuming you know that. If you're actually looking for a case study, the most prominent wrongful death sentence with alleged racial bias in NC is probably Darryl Hunt.

Also, see “The Death Penalty in North Carolina: A Summary of the Data and Scientific Studies.” @ http://www.pscj.appstate.edu/ncdeathpenalty/

Posted by: KRH (Student) | Dec 23, 2011 3:47:07 PM

Thanks for the post.
(1) After briefly reviewing the Darryl Hunt clippings, I cannot say whether his case is relevant in the slightest since Hunt states that --he--was--never--sentenced--to--death!

In my sources, Hunt did not present any evidence of racism other than that he had only “one black on his jury”.

Hunt does make a fuzzy but suggestive assertion that “if you think that race did not play a factor in my case, in me being arrested, charged and convicted, then you’re not living here in North Carolina.” [Whereat I, J.R. Adamakis am not.]

(2) Since 152 of the 158 convicts on death row have filed RJA claims, the efficiency and meaningfulness of the legislation have been severely compromised
to the point of joke status, no? Hence the repeal.

For Perdue to veto this without either acknowledging the abuse of the Act or pinpointing any truly specific need equates to a highly questionable move.

Ulterior motive such as kowtowing for the minority vote, or blind party/progressive allegiance, perchance?

This is what irks independent voters such as myself. Just because I am of color I am to swallow the line “that racial bias [is] inappropriately taint[ing] the death penalty in NC”
without evidence? I think not.

Posted by: adamakis | Dec 24, 2011 12:36:54 AM

Whoops. Yes, I was wrong... Hunt wasn't actually sentenced to death. I apologize, I blame the error on recovering from finals. :)
While I agree that there are very legitimate concerns about the RJA that needs to be addressed and that some revision is in order, I don't think the fact that death row inmates are inappropriately attempting to use the law for relief is necessarily evidence that it's a bad law.
Additionally, the influence of race on these matters seems so often subconscious that it's doubtful inmates will be able to provide precise, articulated justifications as to why race played an inappropriate impact on their death sentences. If that's the standard, I don't think that most defendants are going to be able to meet it. Does that mean that race played no factor whatsoever in their death sentence? Personally, I don't think so. From what I understand from Baldus and the additional studies to come out of this question, it seems that the actual racial impact relates to the race of the victim, not necessarily the defendant... as in, the death penalty is sought with more frequency with white victims, especially white female victims, and especially when those white victims are killed by someone of another race. I'm not comfortable with the idea that if I, a white woman, am murdered, the defendant has a greater chance of getting the death penalty if the defendant happens to be a person of color.

Posted by: KRH (Student) | Dec 25, 2011 3:03:05 PM

Right you are that studies indicate that that the "the race of the victim, not necessarily the defendant" generates less (or more) decisions to render the sentence of death.
This is unfortunate. You are fair as well in decrying that "the defendant has a greater chance of getting the death penalty if the defendant happens to be a person of color."

If you check this blog for the 10-24-11 post on ||Federal Prosecutor in Western NY|| you'll see that I wrote this:

So a prosecutor (Hochul) boldly pursues the death penalty for those who kill urban, presumably minority males, and he is criticized...

(1) Wouldn't his actions signify part of the remedy for the only actual racial discrepancy in death penalty cases, i.e. fewer executions of those who murder minorities?

(2) Shouldn't those who seek racial justice join Hochul in making this "part of a national trend,"?

Posted by: adamakis | Dec 26, 2011 11:37:50 PM

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