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.


Death penalty debate heats up

Asheville and Georgia cases ignite death penalty debate:
One execution, two exonerations raise questions of justice

ASHEVILLE — Fifteen hours stood between the execution of Troy Davis amid questions over his true guilt and the sunny afternoon two Asheville men exonerated in another murder case walked free.

But the cases stand out for reasons other than just timing. Though each held significant differences from the other, they both have reignited debate over the death penalty and imperfections within our justice system.

Davis, convicted of killing an off-duty police officer in Georgia in 1989, was given a trial.

Kenneth Kagonyera and Robert Wilcoxson pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in a 2000 slaying under threats from investigators and prosecutors and even their own attorneys and family, who wanted to spare them life in prison or the possibility of a death sentence.

Davis gained national attention, with even the pope questioning his guilt.

The case of Kagonyera and Wilcoxson generated passing interest before they were freed Thursday.

But where Davis had to work within the court system, Kagonyera and Wilcoxson had the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission.

Its success with their case will give new momentum to calls for similar justice system checks in other states.

For the full story, see http://www.citizen-times.com/article/20110925/NEWS/309250062/Death-penalty-debate-heats-up?odyssey=mod|newswell|text|News|p

North Carolina Lawmakers Nearly Repeal ‘Racial Justice Act’

North Carolina Lawmakers Nearly Repeal ‘Racial Justice Act’

Jessica Kim | June 17, 2011, 3:55PM

After heated debate, a sharply divided North Carolina House on Thursday voted along party lines to repeal the Racial Justice Act, a law that allows death row inmates to challenge their sentences on the basis that race had played a role in determining their punishment. However, the move fell short by a single vote in the Republican-dominated Senate.

North Carolina was in 2009 only the second state after Kentucky to have passed such a law. In a state where a black man is more than twice as likely to be sentenced to death if at least one of the victims is white, according to a Michigan State University study, some lawmakers consider the Racial Justice Act to be landmark legislation.

But Republican opponents say the law is unenforceable and needlessly ties up the court system. After they took a majority in the legislature last year, Republicans promised to repeal or amend the act, charging that it was a disingenuous attempt to phase out the death penalty in the state.

The controversial repeal bill brought about a House debate that was at turns academic and passionate, in which defenders of the act, most of them Democrats, urged others to “do justice” and to recall the historical legacy of racism in North Carolina.

Rep. Rick Glazier (D) pointed to anecdotal evidence of discrimination reported in the distant past such as jurors’ comments to “let’s kill the nigger” or “blacks value life less.”

“Many of us in this room know that being black is different,” he concluded. “Nothing in life is settled unless settled right. Race remains this nation’s open wound whose ragged edges long to heal, but cannot.”

In turn, Rep. Paul Stam (R) rose to speak with a rebuttal that alluded to the Bible and to ancient Roman law. After highlighting the Western tradition of individual punishment, he disputed the broader use of statistics to lessen an individual death sentence.

“Stop using race as a reason not to execute cold-blooded murderers,” said Stam. “Race is a red herring.”

The vast majority of North Carolina’s death row inmates, at least 150 out of 158, have already filed claims under the Racial Justice Act. Some of those, Republican lawmakers point out, are white men who committed crimes against other white men.

Despite the impassioned rhetoric surrounding it, the Racial Justice Act is just one part of the wider debate taking place over the death penalty in the state.

In the last several years, three North Carolina death row inmates have been released after ultimately being found innocent, and since 1973, there have been eight such cases in the state.

Legislators remain divided over the question of whether the death penalty is inherently flawed as a result of racial bias and whether the Racial Justice Act is an effective way to address that.

North Carolina has had a de facto moratorium on its death penalty since August 2006, when the N.C. Medical Board barred doctors from being “present” for lethal injections. Though the N.C. Supreme Court has struck down the rule, executions are still postponed through the appeals process.

The manner in which state Republicans quickly pushed a repeal bill to the legislature was called a “gimmick” by an editorial by the Fayettville Observer.

“As far as we know, though, no one anticipated the sheer cynicism and high-handedness of the law’s more ideological enemies. The way the opposition set the stage, there might be little debate, honest or otherwise, because their purpose is to neuter the law by gimmick.”

Having failed in the Senate, the legislature won’t revisit a repeal measure before next year.

Hopes Perdue will veto attempt to repeal Racial Justice Act

Hopes Perdue will veto attempt to repeal Racial Justice Act

Written by

Jean Parks, Fletcher

11:13 AM, Jun. 14, 2011|

In 2009, I worked hard to help get the Racial Justice Act passed. That was before I learned that the man serving time for my sister’s murder might have been wrongfully convicted by a Wake County jury. If he is in fact innocent, I believe unconscious racial bias may have played a role in his conviction.

So I am now an even more ardent supporter of the RJA. I know the law only applies to death penalty cases currently, and this inmate was not sentenced to death, but we have to start somewhere to eliminate the conscious and unconscious bias in our legal system that is our heritage as Americans.

Recent studies clearly demonstrate that racial bias is present in NC’s practice of capital punishment. Our legislators have a civil and moral duty to correct that injustice by preserving the RJA in its current form. If they fail that duty, I hope and pray Governor Perdue will veto their attempt to repeal the RJA.


Why I Am in Jail

As I write this note, it is 12:30PM and I’m sitting comfortably in my office at the NC Council of Churches.  At 3PM, though, I will be in the gallery at the NC Legislature, and by late this afternoon I may find myself in jail.

[Editor’s note: David was arrested on Tuesday around 4pm.]

The current legislature is making a host of decisions which are contrary to the teachings of Christianity, and I feel called to resist those actions with my very body.

Some may say that the actions of the legislature are legal and mandated by the people, and it is therefore suspect to oppose them. I contest that some of the actions are legal (sound public education is guaranteed by the North Carolina Constitution, for example, but is being systematically gutted by the current legislature), but it’s not the legal argument I will be making tonight. I will leave that to the lawyers.

Rather, I would argue that what is right and what is legal sometimes come into conflict, and when they do, our allegiance to God’s teaching should be stronger than our allegiance to the state.  To repeal the Racial Justice Act, to gut public education funding in favor of vouchers for private schools, to prevent federal unemployment money from reaching needy state recipients (when this has no impact on the state budget), to restrict access to the polls by requiring photo IDs, to stop a whole host of services to the poor, from disability funding to health programs to legal representation, stopping same-day registration, stopping Sunday voting, etc. — these things are unconscionable.

Jesus began his ministry with the words “I come to bring good news to the poor.” The direction of the current legislature is very bad news indeed for the poor, and as people of faith, it is our responsibility to oppose it.  There are many ways to oppose it, of course, and I encourage others to explore how they are called to do so, whether it is a phone call to the governor to encourage her to exercise her ink well and veto bills that are morally unjustifiable, a letter to your legislators, or marching with HKonJ. Whatever shape our action may take, though, we must act. It is hard for me to reconcile inaction and faithfulness.

The point of getting arrested, in this case, for me, is to simply call attention to what is going on Jones Street. I think the vast majority of North Carolinians are good people and people of conscience, and would not stand for what is happening there if they were aware of it. I believe that many of the people who voted for the current leadership would also not stand for these actions, but were manipulated by fear into supporting a radical faction which is now betraying the very people who put them in office. Of course, North Carolinians are also busy people who are struggling with issues that occupy their time and attention and may keep them from being fully informed.

If we do not call attention to these issues, though, our struggles will become much more difficult to bear. We have to make the time to tune in, and to take action. My action, this afternoon, will be to refuse to leave when I am asked to.  I will break the law willingly, and will pay the price of that civil disobedience to the law because it would be a higher price to disobey my conscience, shaped by my faith.

When asked which commandment is the greatest, Jesus said “Love the Lord God with all your heart, mind, strength and spirit, and love your neighbor as yourself.”  I believe that ‘love,’ in this case, is not an emotion. Rather, it’s about how we treat each other. In a representative democracy, we decide what matters and who matters through our governmental process. If we are to be faithful to Christ’s teachings, we must be active in that process, because in the eyes of God (though apparently not in the eyes of the NC legislature), everyone matters, not just the privileged and the powerful.

– David LaMotte
Program Associate for Peace
NC Council of Churches

Repeal the Death Penalty, Not the Racial Justice Act

The Racial Justice Act is a historic piece of legislation enacted to eliminate racial discrimination from North Carolina’s execution chamber. Studies prove conclusively that racial bias plays a role in law enforcement, witness identification, jury selection and other aspects of the state’s capital punishment system. The race of the victim as well as the accused plays a role in the imposition of the death penalty in North Carolina. Repealing the Racial Justice Act would be a travesty of law and justice.

North Carolina’s criminal justice resources should be devoted to the prevention, investigation, prosecution of violent crime, to the incapacitation of violent criminals. Two officers should be in every police car. Crime victims should be given the care and compensation they need. The death penalty does not deter crime or provide closure; to the contrary, it steals time and resources that should be devoted to public safety.

Innocent people have lost their freedom and even their lives, and violent criminals have gone free because of corruption and incompetence in the criminal justice system. The system is far too flawed to administer the ultimate punishment. Moreover, North Carolina could save a fortune by simply repealing the death penalty.

-Alex Cury, member of WNCDPR





CONTACT: Alex Holsten (910) 471-0822

Asheville — Alex Holsten’s parents paid hundreds of dollars to give him a basketball signed by Shaquille O’Neal and Dwayne Wade, but Holsten could not be dissuaded by NC death row exoneree Glen Edward Chapman — the UNC-A student insisted on donating the basketball to the Freedom Ball, a fundraiser for Chapman, which takes place this Thursday, March 31, at the Grey Eagle Music Hall from 7 till midnight, featuring a fabulous musical lineup: David LaMotte; Skinny Legs & All, The Krektones and Kinjah, as well as a silent auction where the basketball and other donated items will go to the highest bidder.

Holsten and Chapman became friends after the college senior started donating his time to death penalty repeal and reform efforts. Holsten was inspired to write his senior thesis on the historic NC Racial Justice Act, which serves to eliminate racial bias from the state’s capital punishment system.

Chapman celebrates his third year of freedom this year. He was released on April 2, 2008, after spending more than thirteen years on North Carolina’s death row for crimes he did not commit. Hickory police detectives hid evidence of Chapman’s innocence. Chapman’s lawyers did not bother to investigate multiple reports by people who saw the other victim the day after the prosecution claimed she was murdered by Edward, The fact that that “victim” was not murdered after all provided another ground for reversing Chapman’s conviction.

It was only when local attorney Frank Goldsmith and mitigation specialist Dr. Pam Laughon, chair of the Psychology Department at UNC-Asheville, started working on Edward’s case more than a decade later, that the truth began to be revealed. Even then, it took years to achieve justice and secure Chapman’s freedom. His son had grown up and his own mother as well as his son’s mother had died while Chapman was wrongly imprisoned.

All proceeds ($10 student; $15 general and $25 patron tickets are available online at http://braveulysses.com/tickets or at the door) go to Edward Chapman.

Contact: Alex Cury
(828) 253-5088

Tyrone Greenlee gives persistent voice to concerns over racism, social justice

Story in the Asheville Citizen-Times Sunday Edition about community leader Tyrone Greenlee includes his instrumental work in WNC for the NC Racial Justice Act, which seeks to eliminate racial bias in the imposition of the death penalty in North Carolina.

Tyrone Greenlee, executive director of the nonprofit Christians for a United Community, works out of an office in the rectory of St. Matthais Episcopal Church off South Charlotte Street. Greenlee said his organization wants to keep a conversation about racism and social justice issues going in Asheville. "This is ongoing work, work you never leave," he said. 

Tyrone Greenlee, executive director of the nonprofit Christians for a United Community, works out of an office in the rectory of St. Matthais Episcopal Church off South Charlotte Street. Greenlee said his organization wants to keep a conversation about racism and social justice issues going in Asheville. “This is ongoing work, work you never leave,” he said. / Erin Brethauer/ebrethau@citizen-times.com

ACLU participates in anti-death penalty press conference

North Carolina’s flawed justice system and support of the death penalty wrongly imprisons  and executes the innocent, according to speakers at a press conference held at the Buncombe County courthouse.

“Nobody’s life should be at stake with a system so flawed,” said Glen Edward Chapman, a man who spent 15 years on death row in North Carolina before being exonerated in 2008.

Click here for the full article.