Winston Salem Journal: Editorial: Race should play no role in ultimate punishment

“Judge William Z. Wood’s affirmation last week of the state’s new Racial Justice Act will put him in the law books. Although his decision in Forsyth County Superior Court is being criticized by many and the matter may well be appealed, we believe that the decision was courageous and just.

Wood ruled that the act is constitutional, the Journal’s Michael Hewlett reported, rejecting arguments from Forsyth County prosecutors that the law is too vague and ambiguous. He considered two county cases that involve men on death row, Carl Stephen Moseley and Errol Duke Moses.

The act allows defense lawyers to argue racial bias in the pursuit or imposition of the death penalty. Judicial rulings of racial bias would not free those already convicted but would convert their death sentences to ones of life in prison.

For too long, who gets the death penalty in this state has been tightly bound to race. Yes, we’re past the bad old days when far more blacks were executed than whites. But racial makeup of juries still makes a big difference. In Forsyth County, 58 percent of death-row inmates were sentenced by juries with only one person of color or none.”

“So yes, as counter-intuitive as it is, the act does allow a white defendant such as Timothy Hartford, the brutal slayer of the Meals-on-Wheels server Anne Magness and her recipient, Bob Denning, who were both white, to argue bias under the Racial Justice Act. David Hall, one of the top lieutenants in the Forsyth County District Attorney’s office, argued before Wood that “It is an insult that Timothy Hartford and white defendants who have been convicted of killing white victims can seek relief under this statute. It is, frankly, obscene to use it in this fashion.”

But the statistics leave room for attorneys to argue that white life is more valuable than black life, whether the killer is black or white, at least if the value is judged by the punishment. That said, we trust that judges will weed out the frivolous appeals from the credible ones. Even as that happens, the Racial Justice Act will create more work for prosecutors. But it’s crucial work to ensure that justice has been done.

We realize that a new wave of prosecutors in our state, ones untied to past prejudices — including Forsyth District Attorney Jim O’Neill — rightly resent the implication that the act paints them as racist. But the numbers say that our judges should give these statistics a hard look before imposing the ultimate punishment in the name of the state — each and every one of us.”

Full editorial here: Race should play no role in ultimate punishment

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