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February 7, 2011

NC prosecutors bring complaints about state's Racial Justice Act to court

As detailed in this local article, North Carolina's prosecutors "will test the reach of the state's fledgling Racial Justice Act today as they try to persuade a Forsyth County judge that the law is too sweeping and vague to comply with the North Carolina Constitution." Here is more on this interesting story of prosecutors assailing the constitutionality of state legislation:

The hearing is held against a backdrop of uncertainty for the law, which passed narrowly along party lines in the final days of the 2009 legislative session. Republicans who assumed power of both the state House and Senate last month have threatened to repeal or severely narrow its reach.

Prosecutors in the two Forsyth County cases argue that the statute is so broad and vague that the courts' attempts to interpret and litigate it will "result in a vast consumption of precious state resources." The statute, prosecutors complain, is being used not only by minorities on death row, but by white inmates convicted of killing white victims.

"It is doubtless true that the General Assembly intended the Act provide another tool to combat the possibility of the death penalty being disproportionately sought or applied upon those of a protected class, such as African-Americans," Forsyth County District Attorney James R. O'Neill and Assistant District Attorney David L. Hall, said in their motion seeking dismissal of the Moses claim.

More than 50 percent of the Racial Justice Act claims brought by death row inmates in Forsyth County are white inmates convicted of killing white victims, the prosecutors said. "This interpretation is a clear waste of precious judicial resources," the prosecutors said.

Defense lawyers contend that a defendant, no matter his race, benefits from having racial diversity on a jury, thus creating an opportunity where a broad range of opinions and cultural experiences could be brought into deliberations of guilt or innocence....

Prosecutors further contend that the law is so broad it can punish prosecutors in one jurisdiction for the actions of prosecutors in another.

Defense attorneys argue that prosecutors are "turning constitutional law on its head." They say the bulk of questions raised by prosecutors are best posed in the legislature, not the courts.

Some related posts on the North Carolina Racial Justice Act:

February 7, 2011 at 05:05 PM | Permalink


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Seems to me that it is entirely possible that this legislation, which holds out the possibility of ripping open criminal judgments, could be challenged on separation of powers issues, cf. Plaut.

Posted by: federalist | Feb 7, 2011 6:18:49 PM

It raises an interesting question when lawyers representing the state argue that a state law is unconstitutional. In my state (Iowa) we are by case law specifically forbidden from doing that.

Posted by: AlanO | Feb 7, 2011 8:10:24 PM

I do not begrudge the state prosecutors their chance in court, but I would respectfully submit that the better place to start would be the state legislature, which I think would be highly likely to vote for repeal.

The Governor is a Democrat, but the legislature should just attach the repealer to a must-sign bill (like appropriations). This Racial Justice Act lacked popular support to start with, and the Governor is not likely to have so much invested in it politically that she would veto its repeal.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Feb 7, 2011 10:10:20 PM

There are White inmates convicted of killing White people using this law to challenge their sentences. That is enough to see just how idiotic and dishonest it is already. After that, you have to ask yourself: how can prosecutors better tailor their cases to avoid RJA challenges? Spend months researching every other case for decades to determine if it upsets the statistical balance of White and Black victims and killers?

Posted by: MikeinCT | Feb 8, 2011 12:05:07 AM

I suppose one way to move towards avoiding any hint of racial (or other) bias is to do what Baltimore County, Maryland used to do until just a few years ago. That is, every county prosecutor in North Carolina could seek the death penalty in each and every case that can possibly be charged as capital murder. This, of course, would likely lead to the less-than-desirable outcome for abolitionists of an upsurge in death sentences--for blacks and whites and Lumbee Indians.

Posted by: alpino | Feb 8, 2011 1:39:47 AM

This is a positive development, to be encouraged. Demand the data justifying a law. All law is ghoulish, unauthorized human experimentation. All legal remedies are procedures on the body. They should each be proven safe and effective, and meet Daubert standards, as a minimum. From the article:

"The Michigan State research, paid for by nonprofit agencies and foundations that have been critical of the death penalty, is the backbone of most of the racial bias claims.

Though the research has continued since the initial findings were released in July 2010, prosecutors complain that they have not yet received the raw data that led to the conclusions.

Defense lawyers, who have promised to turn over the evidence, respond that prosecutors have not turned over information they are seeking connected to the cases.

Defense lawyers have asked prosecutors to provide them with information about why they chose to seek capital punishment in the cases that will test the Racial Justice Act."

Read more: http://www.newsobserver.com/2011/02/07/973261/racial-justice-act-faces-test.html#ixzz1DMofIrMY

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Feb 8, 2011 6:52:30 AM

The fact that white defendants are using the law to challenge their sentences is not surprising in light of the concerns pointed out in studies of application of the death penalty in North Carolina that prosecutors seek death in cases where the victim is white more often then when the victim is a minority regardless of the race of the defendant. Why shouldn't a white defendant have the same opportunity as a minority defendant to show that the prosecutor only sought a death sentence because of the race of the victim?

Posted by: Amanda | Feb 8, 2011 2:08:28 PM

It's a little ridiculous to make any argument based on plaintiffs attempting to "use" a statute. Anyone can file a complaint citing any statute. That doesn't mean something's wrong with the law, it just means the complaint is meritless.

Posted by: Jay | Feb 8, 2011 2:42:58 PM

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