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August 11, 2009

NC Gov official signs new racial justice act concerning capital prosecutions

The first sentence of this local article provides the big capital punishment news from North Carolina today: "North Carolina now allows challenges to the death penalty based on race."  Here's more from the start of the new report:

Gov. Bev Purdue signed the N.C. Racial Justice Act Tuesday, a victory for supporters who contend its passage is the first step in closing racial disparities in how capital punishment is applied, especially in the South where the number of condemned inmates tends to be higher. The law allows defendants to use statistical data to argue racial bias.

“I have always been a supporter of death penalty, but I have always believed it must be carried out fairly,” Perdue at the sigining. “The Racial Justice Act ensures that when North Carolina hands down our state’s harshest punishment to our most heinous criminals – the decision is based on the facts and the law, not racial prejudice.”

Kentucky is the only other state with such a law that allows death penalty challenges based on ethnicity.

The state Senate passed the bill last week and the House approved it last month. The Senate bill was sponsored by Sen. Floyd McKissik (D-Durham) and in the House by Reps. Larry Womble (D-Forsyth), Earline Parmon (D-Forsyth), Paul Luebke (D-Durham) and Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford). “This is a very auspicious and also historic occasion for the state of North Carolina. This is about justice for our state, and North Carolina is leading the nation in this particular area,” Womble said. “I want to thank all of the sponsors, supporters and the people of North Carolina. We want the world to know that we will be fair and objective in this area.”

Studies have concluded that ethnic minorities – especially blacks – and the poor are more likely to be sentenced to death than whites. North Carolina has 163 inmates on death row, including 98 African Americans. Capital punishment opponents point to a 2001 study by researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill that found that the odds of a murder defendant condemned to death in North Carolina increase if the victim is white.

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That "study" didn't control for geography, so it's completely bogus. If a jurisdiction with a large black population doesn't seek the DP, then it's going to skew the numbers.

These people just don't like capital punishment, but don't have the guts to say so, so they impugn juries, judges and prosecutors with no facts and bogus studies.

Posted by: federalistl | Aug 11, 2009 7:38:58 PM

That study points to the devaluation of the black murder victim. A law should be enacted to force murderers of black victims to be condemned to death, not the obverse. To deter.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Aug 11, 2009 7:48:59 PM

"Studies have concluded that ethnic minorities – especially blacks – and the poor are more likely to be sentenced to death than whites."

No need to mention the many studies, including the defense side's own, that have concluded just the opposite. I debated the death penalty with Virginia Sloan on PBS NewsHour a couple of years ago, and she said, "It's not the race of the defendant that is the major factor, and I don't think there are many studies that claim that."

But inconvenient truths would only confuse the public.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Aug 11, 2009 8:01:01 PM

Folks who fail to acknowledge the presence of racial considerations in the trial of capital cases ignore reality.

Three years ago I was selecting the jury in a capital case and the state had passed a juror to me. The def was black. I had asked a bunch of questions and finally, "Is there any reason that you think you would not be an appropriate juror in this case?"

The juror said,"It won't do the defendant any good for me to be on the jury." I asked him to please explain. He said, "the defendant is black, I'm white and I'm prejudiced"

You don't need studies to prove the obvious that race is still a part of the fabric of our country.

bruce cunningham

Posted by: bruce cunningham | Aug 12, 2009 8:17:21 AM

A difficult topic that must be resolved very carefully, although the geographical limitations and other isolated factors may leave any studies susceptible to criticism. Racism is still prevalent, unfortunately, but we must be careful not to have bias while we search for bias elsewhere.

Posted by: Felony Classes | Aug 12, 2009 10:42:22 AM

Bruce Cunningham writes, "The juror said, 'It won't do the defendant any good for me to be on the jury.' I asked him to please explain. He said, 'the defendant is black, I'm white and I'm prejudiced.'"

There you have it: conclusive proof that some people don't want to do jury duty and know exactly what to say to ensure they are challenged.

Did anyone doubt that?

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Aug 12, 2009 1:17:36 PM

Although bruce's "evidence" in support of racism in capital punishment is pretty thin, it's not wise to fight the battle on these terms. Whether or not there is racism in America is simply not relevant, nor is it relevant that in some cases race may play a role. Race plays a role in acquittals/convictions--does that mean we throw out jury trials or extend the benefits of racial favoritism to other defendants? No. So why in the capital punishment sphere. Is it fair to thwart the democratic process because some individuals in the system may be racist? Is it right to give every murderer in NC the benefit of the racial favoritism shown to James Burmeister?

Posted by: federalistl | Aug 12, 2009 1:23:52 PM

Hey, I agree, if people are being executed for their race then it's wrong, but let's not forget that immigration causes more crime...

Posted by: joe jones | Aug 12, 2009 4:00:31 PM

Kent, I am curious whether you have ever been involved in the trial of a capital case, either for the defense or prosecution. Bruce

Posted by: bruce cunningham | Aug 12, 2009 10:54:54 PM

Kent, I didn't mention the reason I am curious about whether you have any first hand experience with capital litigation is because your conclusion about the motives of the juror ignores the fact that jurors are first questioned and passed by the State before the defense asks the first question. If a juror knows what to say to get off the jury he would say it during the examination by the State, not wait for the questioning to be turned over to the defense.


Posted by: bruce cunningham | Aug 12, 2009 11:01:48 PM

Bruce: I am curious whether you have ever been successful in getting a guilty murderer freed, and you read that he killed others?

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Aug 13, 2009 12:47:46 AM

No, I haven't, but the issue of veniremembers answering in a way to get challenged is not unique to capital cases by any means. It does not follow that one who wanted to avoid serving for the trial would necessarily try to get challenged as early as possible in the voir dire.

The voir dire process, BTW, varies considerably between states. In California, for a time, the judge asked all the questions and the lawyers could not directly ask any.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Aug 13, 2009 11:10:07 AM

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