Death Row Reform: ‘We Can No Longer Pretend Courts Are Colorblind’

A North Carolina inmate will this summer be the first to invoke a state law that allows appeals based on racial bias in capital punishment sentencing.

By Jamilah King Aug 01, 2011

Death row inmate Marcus Reymond Robinson could make history. Convicted of robbing and murdering a white teenager in 1991, Robinson, who’s black, has spent the past two decades on North Carolina’s death row. But now, thanks to a state law that allows inmates awaiting capital punishment to appeal if they can prove racial bias played a roll in their sentencing, Robinson may be able to instead argue his way into a life sentence. 

A hearing scheduled for later this summer will be the first of its kind under the state’s Racial Justice Act. In 2009, the state of North Carolina took what anti-death penalty activists called an unprecedented step in enacting the Racial Justice Act. They argue that it not only acknowledges racial disparities in capital punishment, but actively works to right previous wrongs. More than 150 death row inmates have begun legal maneuvers in an attempt that it will help overturn their death sentences. 

North Carolina is one of 34 states in the country that still enforce the death penalty. It has the nation’s sixth largest death row population, according to statistics provided by the Death Penalty Information Center.

Like several other states, the racial make up of North Carolina’s death row population is made up of mostly black inmates. Of the 159 people currently sitting on North Carolina’s death row, the majority–86 people–are black, even though African Americans make up just over 21 percent of the state’s overall population. And national death penalty statistics show that black inmates are put to death at disproportionately higher numbers than their white counterparts.

In March, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed a law abolishing the death penalty in that state, saying that the possibility of executing innocent people made him question the integrity the system. New Mexico, New York and New Jersey have all abolished the death penalty in the past four years.

North Carolina is one of two states to offer inmates and defendants a chance to challenge their sentences or cases using statistics, according to the Raleigh News and Observer.

Here’s how the law works: defendants can introduce evidence of racial bias, including statistics on whether death sentences are sought or imposed more frequently on one race over another. Inmates can also provide evidence on whether race was a factor for decisions to use preemptory challenges during jury selection.

There have been several studies in recent years that show just how prevalent racial bias is in jury selection and sentencing. The Equal Justice Initiative released a report last year that found many southern states still have mostly white juries, and that prosecutors often dismiss jurors of color for questionable reasons. The report showed that in Houston County, Alabama, 80 percent of African Americans qualified for jury service have been struck down in death penalty cases. In one instance cited by the New York Times, a black minister was dismissed because she "wasn’t the kind of juror" prosecutors were looking for, while a white minister was then accepted.

Republican lawmakers, who have been trying to overturn the law, are arguing that the law has caused chaos in the state’s capital punishment system, and many suspect that was intentional; the state’s last execution was in 2006.

Opponents of the bill also object to the fact that many death row inmates are citing the same findings from a Michigan State University study that shows juries in the North Carolina are still overwhelmingly white. Researchers Catherine Grosso and Barbara O’Brien found that of 5,800 cases eligible for the death penalty from 1990 through 2009, more than 40 percent of defendants were sentenced to death by a jury that was either all white or included only one person of color, reported the Journal.

Four state Republicans have introduced a proposal, called "No Discriminatory Purpose in Death Penalty," to alter the Racial Justice Act, so that inmates or defendants would have to prove that prosecutors intentionally used race as a discriminatory factor in seeking capital punishment.

The law "was designed to put a semi-permanent moratorium on the death penalty by clogging the courts and it’s accomplished that…It was probably the sloppiest piece of legislation I’ve ever seen and it’s costing tens of millions of dollars a year," Republican Rep. Paul Stam told the Wall Street Journal. The repeal effort by the North Carolina Senate likely won’t take place until 2012.

Yet supporters of the Racial Justice Act argue that attempts to alter the bill would come at a steep price.

"Supporters of this bill are calling it a reform," Tye Hunter, executive director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, told the News Observer. "In truth, it is an attempt to destroy a promise made to the citizens of North Carolina that we would examine whether racial bias plays a role in our criminal justice system."

In reaction to the Michigan State University study that highlighted the persistence of all-white juries in North Carolina, Hunter added to the News Observer: "Now that we have seen this evidence, we can no longer pretend that our courts are colorblind."