Racial Justice Act ‘fix’ would in essence end it

Racial Justice Act ‘fix’ would in essence end it

North Carolina’s prosecutors apparently don’t want to defend their death-penalty decisions against claims of racial prejudice. Simple justice demands otherwise. The General Assembly should leave the state’s Racial Justice Act alone.

The 2009 law allows the use of statistics to demonstrate that racial bias played a significant role in either sentencing or in prosecutors’ decision to seek the death penalty. If a claim is successful, the inmate’s sentence is reduced to life without parole.

A Michigan State University study showed that a North Carolina defendant is 2.6 times more likely to be sentenced to death if at least one of the victims is white, and that of 159 people on death row at the time of the study, 31 had all-white juries and 38 had only one person of color on the jury.

Not surprisingly, almost every African-American on death row is seeking a review. Prosecutors claim, in a letter to the state Senate seeking repeal of the law, that this will clog the court system.

“If you do not address this issue quickly, the criminal justice system will be saddled with litigation that will crush an already under-funded and overburdened system,” wrote Johnston County District Attorney Susan Doyle, president of the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys.

The biggest problem yet visible has been caused by the prosecutors themselves. In Cumberland County they tried to stall proceedings by asking that a judge be disqualified because he might be a witness. The judge had nothing to do with the original case. He is, however, an African-American.

House Republicans have tried to undermine the law by changing a Senate-passed bill dealing with synthetic marijuana to instead require that defendants challenging actions under the Racial Justice Act prove discriminatory intent. This would be a virtually insurmountable barrier.

The purpose of the parliamentary maneuver is to get around the rules that only bills already passed in both houses can be considered during the special session at month’s end. “The House is attempting a procedural maneuver to eliminate public debate,” said Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, an architect of the act.

“There is agreement that occasionally race plays a role in sentencing,” House Minority Leader Joe Hackney, D-Chapel Hill, said during a visit to the Citizen-Times editorial board. “(The Racial Justice Act) is an appropriate exercise of caution.”

The Racial Justice Act cannot set anyone free, despite claims made in an incendiary mailer delivered to voters late in the 2010 campaign against then-Sen. John Snow, D-Murphy. Most Death Row inmates were convicted since North Carolina eliminated parole for capital murder in 1994, and even those convicted before 1994 would have to go through a parole hearing before release.

The Senate already has twice refused to vote on the bill, each time sending it to the Judiciary Committee. Senate Majority Leader Phil Berger, R-Eden, doesn’t know if it will come up this month, but “It’s certainly on the radar screen.”

It should stay in committee. North Carolina must not backslide in this important move toward racial justice.

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One Response to Racial Justice Act ‘fix’ would in essence end it

  1. Rev.Dr. Roger L. Thomas says:

    Pennsylvania is considering the Racial Justice Act as HB 2256. It’s modeled after NC’s law. I’m asking whoever believes in the RJA to contact Rep. Ron Marsico, Chair of the House Judiciary Committee. Send your comments to thomasrnr@hotmail.com and mention Racial Justice Act in the subject line.

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