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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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

Capital Punishment: Its Morality, Politics, Economics, and Effectiveness

Ed Chapman

The Episcopal Peace Fellowship is presenting a panel
presentation and discussion about the death penalty in the library at
All Souls Cathedral (Biltmore Village) on Saturday, September 17 from
10:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Panel members will be Dick Taylor (CEO of
North Carolina Advocates for Justice), Jean Parks (Western Carolinians
for Death Penalty Repeal) and Ed Chapman (a death row exoneree).  Join
us and bring your friends for an open discussion on the subject. There
is no admission but there will be a free will offering to provide an
honorarium for Mr. Chapman.  For more information, contact Jean Parks
at jparks@grandcreative.com or 828-329-8306.

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.

http://www.citizen-times.com/article/20110615/OPINION02/110614017/Hopes-Perdue-will-veto-attempt-repeal-Racial-Justice-Act?odyssey=mod|newswell|text|Frontpage|http://www.citizen-times.com/article/20110615/OPINION02/110614017/Hopes-Perdue-will-veto-attempt-repeal-Racial-Justice-Act?odyssey=mod|newswell|text|Frontpage|p

Winston Salem Journal: NC NAACP Statement on HB615

“The extreme right wing that has apparently seized control of the North Carolina Republican Party chose April 4th, a day that lives in infamy in the hearts and minds of all justice-minded Americans, to introduce a law against Racial Justice,” said Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, President of the N.C. NAACP.  “On the 43rd anniversary of Dr. King’s murder, which many historians believe not only killed a prophet but set back the cause of racial and economic justice in America, Tea Party forces attacked the nationally-recognized North Carolina Racial Justice Act. Dr. King, his widow, the late Coretta Scott King, and the millions of participants in the movement he led, would have all supported the Racial Justice Act.  This extreme right wing race-baiting attack is misguided, mean, and malicious especially when we know the death penalty is too often applied in a way that is a modern day form of racism and classism.”

Much more at the link: NC NAACP State on HB615

The Truth About HB 615, Falsely Named “An Act to Reform the Racial Justice Act”

Our general assembly is attempting to ignore racial disparities in our system of law.  KNOW THE FACTS:

  • HB 615 does NOT amend the NC Racial Justice Act, it renders it meaningless.  HB615 is, in fact, a repeal of the Racial Justice Act.
  • Active litigation of Racial Justice Act claims has been conducted in an efficient and cost-effective manner in front of a single Forsyth County Superior Court judge.
  • The Forsyth County judge recently ruled that the Racial Justice Act is constitutional.
  • The Forsyth County judge made clear in his ruling that both statistics and individual case facts can be considered in each case.
  • The RJA is consistent with McCleskey v. Kemp and the Forsyth County judge said that it is consistent. The US Supreme Court held in McCleskey that this is a matter for state legislatures.
  • No one will be released under the Racial Justice Act.  The law requires those who prove discrimination to serve the rest of their lives in prison without possibility of parole.
  • Because inmates rightfully and legally filed motions under a constitutional law, passage of the proposed amendment would end up costing the state more money in legal actions than it would to continue the Racial Justice Act litigation as it is currently proceeding.
  • Major research studies recently found significant racial bias in jury selection and with regards to race of victim in North Carolina. (Michigan State University School of Law, University of Colorado at Boulder) A repeal of the Racial Justice Act would mean that North Carolina chose to ignore demonstrated racial discrimination in our criminal justice system.
  • For those who are currently on death row, 33 cases had all-white juries and 40 had juries with a single person of color.
  • The Racial Justice Act was enacted with support by a majority of North Carolinians: 58% of polled registered voters said defendants should not be executed if a judge finds that racial bias played a role in their trials. (Public Policy Polling, November 2010)
  • We have a history of racism in North Carolina that necessitates the U.S. Department of Justice pre-clear our legislative district maps.

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

Indyweek.com: The Racial Justice Act: GOP could repeal or amend landmark legislation

“The legislation has been heralded nationally as a leap for civil rights, notable especially for the South and a state with a history haunted by racial inequity. But erasing part or all of the statute is on the agenda for the new Republican majority when it takes hold of this legislative session on Wednesday. Although other priorities—balancing the budget and easing unemployment—are expected to take precedence, incoming House Majority Leader Paul “Skip” Stam, R-Wake, has said he’s pushing to repeal the Racial Justice Act.

In many districts, criticism of the Racial Justice Act helped lift Republicans into power. Days before the 2010 elections, the state Republican Party even distributed flyers falsely contending the law would free convicted murderers and rapists.

Opponents also claim the law is clogging courts with new litigation, at taxpayers’ expense. “The intent may have been fine, but the actual operation of this act is one that is essentially… a re-litigation of almost everybody on death row in North Carolina,” said Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake. “And we simply don’t have the resources to give somebody a sixth, seventh, eighth bite at the apple.”

But there’s no logjam to speak of, supporters say. Hearings on the 149 claims filed by death row inmates won’t begin until next week. Only a few cases have cleared the initial filing, but most of the appeals are still awaiting responses from prosecutors, said representatives with the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, whose attorneys are representing 40 of the prisoners. Judges will decide which cases will be heard. Lawyers handling the appeals wanted to consolidate many of the cases, but prosecutors have so far refused.”

Full article here: The Racial Justice Act: GOP could repeal or amend landmark legislation

New York Times: Opinion: Broken Beyond Repair

Op-ed columnist Bob Herbert

“You can only hope that you will be as sharp and intellectually focused as former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens when you’re 90 years old.

In a provocative essay in The New York Review of Books, the former justice, who once supported the death penalty, offers some welcome insight into why he now opposes this ultimate criminal sanction and believes it to be unconstitutional.

As Adam Liptak noted in The Times on Sunday, Justice Stevens had once thought the death penalty could be administered rationally and fairly but has come to the conclusion “that personnel changes on the court, coupled with ‘regrettable judicial activism,’ had created a system of capital punishment that is shot through with racism, skewed toward conviction, infected with politics and tinged with hysteria.”

The egregious problems identified by Justice Stevens (and other prominent Americans who have changed their minds in recent years about capital punishment) have always been the case. The awful evidence has always been right there for all to see, but mostly it has been ignored. The death penalty in the United States has never been anything but an abomination — a grotesque, uncivilized, overwhelmingly racist affront to the very idea of justice.

Police and prosecutorial misconduct have been rampant, with evidence of innocence deliberately withheld from defendants being prominent among the abuses. Juries have systematically been shaped — rigged — to heighten the chances of conviction, and thus imposition of the ultimate punishment.

Prosecutors and judges in death penalty cases have been overwhelmingly white and male and their behavior has often — not always, but shockingly often — been unfair, bigoted and cruel. The Death Penalty Information Center has reams of meticulously documented horror stories.

Innocents have undoubtedly been executed. Executions have been upheld in cases in which defense lawyers slept through crucial proceedings. Alcoholic, drug-addicted and incompetent lawyers — as well as lawyers who had been suspended or otherwise disciplined for misconduct — have been assigned to indigent defendants. And it has always been the case that the death penalty machinery is fired up far more often when the victims are white.

I remember reporting on a study several years ago by the Texas Defender Service, which represented indigent death row inmates. It mentioned a Dallas defense lawyer, who, reminiscing in 2000, said: “At one point, with a black-on-black murder, you could get it dismissed if the defendant would pay funeral expenses.” A judge, looking back on his days as a prosecutor in the 1950s, recalled being told by an angry boss: “If you ever put another nigger on a jury, you’re fired.”

Prosecutors cleaned up their language somewhat over the years, but the discrimination has persisted, along with the pernicious idea that white lives are inherently more valuable than black ones. Patricia Lemay, a white juror in a Georgia death penalty case that resulted in an execution, told me in an interview in 2002 that she had been nauseated by the vile racial comments made by other jurors during the deliberations.

Justice Harry Blackmun was 85 years old and near the end of his tenure on the Supreme Court when he declared in 1994 that he could no longer support the imposition of the death penalty. “The problem,” he said, “is that the inevitability of factual, legal and moral error gives us a system that we know must wrongly kill some defendants, a system that fails to deliver the fair, consistent and reliable sentences of death required by the Constitution.”

Justice Blackmun vowed that he would no longer participate in a system “fraught with arbitrariness, discrimination, caprice and mistake.”

In 1990, Justice Thurgood Marshall asserted: “When in Gregg v. Georgia the Supreme Court gave its seal of approval to capital punishment, this endorsement was premised on the promise that capital punishment would be administered with fairness and justice. Instead, the promise has become a cruel and empty mockery.”

Justices Blackmun and Marshall are gone, but the death penalty is still with us. It is still an abomination. Illinois has tried mightily to deal with a system of capital punishment that had, as The Chicago Tribune described it, “one of the worst records of wrongful capital convictions in the country.”

The sentences of 167 condemned inmates were commuted in 2003. Four others were pardoned and a moratorium on the death penalty has been in effect since 2000. But prosecutors continue mindlessly to seek the death penalty. And the system for trying murder cases remains a mess. As The Tribune wrote in an editorial just last week:

“Lawmakers still haven’t taken adequate steps to ensure that the death penalty is applied evenly across the state, or to guard against wrongful convictions based on errant identifications of witnesses or mistakes at forensic labs. False confessions and prosecutorial missteps are still alarmingly common.”

In the paper’s view, “Illinois must abolish the death penalty.”

And so must the United States.”

Article here: Broken Beyond Repair