North Carolina Repeals Its Racial Justice Act

The unique law allowed death-row inmates to challenge their sentences if they showed that racial bias played a role in their sentencing.

By Julianne Hing Jun 06, 2013

Showing proof of systemic racial bias will no longer be an option to spare North Carolina death-row inmates from execution. On Wednesday the North Carolina legislature repealed its Racial Justice Act, the only law of its kind of the nation, which allowed death-row inmates to appeal their cases if they could show that racial bias played a role in their sentencing.

Racial justice advocates have said that the law, which has undergone revisions, is a necessary and important tool which acknowledged the reality of well-documented systemic racial discrimination and racial disproportionality in the criminal justice system. But critics argued that the law is more troublesome than it’s worth, and has been exploited by people who are using it as an indirect way to halt executions around the state. Since its passage, critics pointed out, the Racial Justice Act has been invoked by all but two death-row inmates, including those who are white. 

Kentucky, too, has a Racial Justice Act, but it is not retroactive. Defendants may only invoke the law prior to trial. In that way, North Carolina’s law was singularly unique. Since it was enacted in 2009, the law has been plagued by controversy and repeal efforts. This week, those voices won.

"It’s incredibly sad," Rep. Rick Glazier, a supporter of the law, told the New York Times. "If you can’t face up to your history and make sure it’s not repeated, it lends itself to being repeated."