« "America, Land of the Imprisoned" | Main | Sixth Circuit summarily (and wrongly?) decides that sentencing changes in Fair Sentencing Act not applicable to pre-change crime »

September 20, 2010

Will North Carolina's death penalty get killed by its Racial Justice Act?

NA-BI018_RACE_NS_20100919184416 The question in the title of this post is inspired by this effective new piece in the Wall Street Journal titled "Death Penalty Goes on Trial in North Carolina." Here are excerpts:

Last year, North Carolina enacted what's known as the Racial Justice Act, requiring judges to let any inmate off death row if the judge finds that race was a "significant factor" in the death sentence.

About 95% of the state's death-row population, or 152 inmates ..., filed bias claims by the August deadline, according to the North Carolina attorney general's office. The law also allows future capital-murder defendants to claim racial bias. Convicts whose petitions were successful would instead face life sentences, with no chance of parole.

North Carolina's new law is among the most hotly debated responses to recent criticism of the death penalty. Many states have rethought the sentence amid new genetic evidence that has freed some inmates....

North Carolina has undertaken the most far-reaching effort to date to examine the amorphous question of whether race played an improper role in decisions to seek or impose death sentences. It likely will be several months before any of the claims are considered by the courts, attorneys said.

"There are so many variables that can legitimately affect a prosecutor's decision to seek the death penalty, including the seriousness of an offense," said Christopher Slobogin, a death-penalty expert at Vanderbilt University Law School. "This will be a messy enterprise."

Other states could follow North Carolina's lead. Legislation is pending in Pennsylvania to allow death sentences to be challenged on the grounds of racial bias. A similar bill was introduced this year in California, though it was defeated because of concerns it would cost too much to administer, said a spokeswoman for Democratic California state senator Gilbert Cedillo, who introduced it.

Death-penalty critics and civil-rights advocates in North Carolina had pushed for several years to pass legislation aimed at examining the role of race in death-penalty cases. The Rouse case involves unusually specific evidence of alleged bias, and it was cited by advocates of the Racial Justice Act as an example of how discrimination can affect jurors' decision making, according to lawyers involved in the debate over the law....

No particular case served as catalyst for the final legislation, according to people involved in the process. "We had quite a few people in the state who were concerned about the large number of people on death row who are African-American," said state Democratic senator Floyd McKissick Jr., who sponsored the legislation.

The legislation drew heated debate, narrowly passing the Democratic-controlled legislature. No Republican voted for it. "We are just giving murderers an additional tool to delay justice," Justin Burr, a Republican state legislator said....

Some Republicans in the fall election season have continued to criticize their Democratic opponents for voting in favor of the legislation, although now the debate over bias legislation has been subsumed by a bigger controversy, attorneys said. The North Carolina attorney general's office last month released a report that the state's crime lab had routinely failed to disclose evidence possibly favorable to defendants, including in death-penalty cases.

Prosecutors also resisted the law, saying that it calls for a costly and unnecessary wholesale review of cases. "I feel very confident that race has not played a role in imposing the death penalty," said Peg Dorer, director of the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys.

Of particular concern to prosecutors and other opponents is that the new law allows murder defendants to try to prove bias through broad statistical evidence, such as data showing that North Carolina prosecutors, on a county-wide or state-wide basis, have sought the death penalty more frequently against black defendants or in cases involving a white victim. "You shouldn't try a case on statistics," said Sarah Stevens, a North Carolina Republican legislator. "Statistics can be manipulated."

September 20, 2010 at 10:22 AM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Will North Carolina's death penalty get killed by its Racial Justice Act?:


Most murders are intra-racial. This law says, go ahead kill a black person, the risk of the death penalty was too high, the lawyer will lower it for you, because black murder victims are worth less than white ones. The law is the only racist element of the sentencing, opening the hunt especially on the productive black male murder victim.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 20, 2010 7:09:00 PM

Oh, this blog is really amazing!!! it catched my attention since the first time that i saw it and i must to say i spend a great time reading, because i usually like to discover new things. Really nice blog.

Posted by: Buy Viagra | Sep 20, 2010 8:00:15 PM

Hi, I am a current college student. In 1998 I was incarcerated in a few NC female prisons. As an inmate, I noticed (by informal observation) that many of the white women who were convicted of killing white men received life sentences. I also noticed that black women who killed black men were routinely sentenced to 5 years or less. I did not come in contact with many death row inmates, except for two. One white woman, who killed 2 or 3 of her ex-husbands (who were white) was on death row. Also, I met a black woman who (along with 2 other defendants) were convicted of killing a white state trooper in the 1976 in Raleigh, NC. All three of them were senctenced to death- for one murder. Eventually, on appeal she recieved a natural life sentence (meaning she had to serve at least 20years). According to her, in 1977 (the year following her conviction) in a neighboring city(Durham) a black man killed a black police officer and received 20yrs (meaning he would be eligible for parole in less than 10 years).

While I agree that statistics can be manipulated, I also understand the value of conducting a macro-analysis of such situations to see if patterns exist and to determine if certain classes of people are being disproportionally affected. This law would only place less value on black life, if assuming (which I do not) that people who kill both blacks or whites are currently being sentenced similarly.

Posted by: urbnlgl74 | Sep 21, 2010 12:08:40 AM

Urbanlegl74: Another visitor from earth to this lawyer Twilight Zone. Welcome. Send for more visitors.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 21, 2010 3:43:14 AM

"We are just giving murderers an additional tool to delay justice," Justin Burr, a Republican state legislator said....

I find his new initiative of repealing the “Racial Justice Act” or “Murderers Protection Act” to be quite laughable. Especially after Justin Burr was responsible for putting Betty Neumar back onto the streets after murdering 5 husbands.

In the public eye, he is all about “keeping the murderers off the streets”. But in all reality if they have the money, he’s letting them out. Bailing out murderers IS delaying justice.

I would absolutely love to hear his comments regarding this matter.



Posted by: This Needs to be Addressed | Sep 22, 2010 11:27:40 AM

I am looking for some pro bono help for my husband. He was sentenced under the fair felons act in April 1987. He has been incarcerated since March 1986-the time of the crime. He was convicted of killing his wife in a crime of passion and also convicted of killing his daughter which he adamantly denies. He is within one year of his parole date and we can't get a simple MAPP/Honor Grade status. He is the most honest, law abiding man I've ever known. He knows that his life came to a screeching halt the night his meeting with his separated wife turned violent. He has served 25 of the almost 26 years due for parole eligibility. We can't figure out why other first degree murderers are out on parole after only 15-17 years of their conviction date. Is it political influence? What? We are begging for help. Jim is almost 63. His health is going down hill and we need to know how to get him home so he can get proper health care! PLEASE tell me where to find this help!!!
Thanks, Brenda

Posted by: Brenda Hudson | Jan 10, 2011 11:28:18 AM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB