North Carolina’s Historic Fix to Death Penalty Racism Faces GOP Ax

Conservatives have long promised to repeal the historic law. Now, they're closer than ever.

By Jamilah King Nov 29, 2011

North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act is in trouble. The law has barely been on the books for two years, but in that short amount of time it’s caused a mountain of controversy. 

The landmark piece of legislation, signed into law in 2009, allows death row inmates to appeal their sentence on the basis that racial bias played a role in their sentencing, and it allows inmates to bring statistics before judges to help make their case. If they can prove that it did, they win an opportunity to have their sentences commuted to life in prison. All but three of the state’s death row inmates have appealed their sentences.

However, state lawmakers are nearing the end of a three-day session that could result in the gutting of the law.

Opponents of the law have argued that it’s sloppily written and could allow inmates to use statistics of racial injustice from other jurisdictions in their appeals. Already, they’ve won revisions to the law over the summer. Limits were placed on the types of statistics inmates can use in their appeals and courts were required to find that prosecutors acted "with discriminatory purpose" in seeking the death penalty. That change represented a meaningful undermining of the point: The law had moved courts to a focus on racially disparate outcomes, rather than a racist intent.

It’s an historic law with far-reaching implications (Kentucky is the only other state in the country that currently has a racial justice law). For a criminal justice system that’s rife with well-documented racial disparities, in some advocates’ eyes the law is an important legal step toward acknowledging that society’s rules don’t apply equally to everyone.

And that’s particularly true when it comes to the death penalty. Georgia’s controversial execution of Troy Davis in September shed light on the disturbing reality that poor black men are more likely to be killed by the state than any other racial group, particularly when the crime victim is white. Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977, 56 percent of inmates killed by the state have been black. 

That’s just the harshest measure of how race colors tough sentencing: Nationally, 48 percent– that’s nearly 70,000 people–of those who’ve been sentenced to life in prison are black, despite the fact that the black inmates make up 38 percent of the total prison population.

North Carolina is one of 34 states in the U.S. that currently executes prisoners. The Death Penalty Information Center lists it as having the country’s sixth largest death row. The majority of people on it–86 out of a total of 157 inmates–are African American.

Advocates for Justice, an association of North Carolina’s defense attorneys, has joined the NAACP in publicly supporting the law during this most recent legislative backlash. The two groups wrote a letter in support of the Racial Justice Act earlier this month. The four-page letter cites a popular Michigan State University study that found that a defendant in North Carolina is 2.6 times more likely to be sentenced to death if the victim is white.

"The courts of North Carolina have been doing an exemplary job of managing litigation under RJA, both in terms of avoiding unnecessary costs and in terms of expediting review of serious claims of racial discrimination," the letter reads. "Now is not the time for the General Assembly to tinker with the statute and create potentially new avenues of appeal."

The joint letter submitted in support of the bill was filed one day after 43 of the state’s 44 district attorneys wrote a letter to state senators asking them to pass a new bill, Senate Bill 9, that would repeal the Racial Justice Act when the state’s General Assembly reconvened on Nov. 27. The prosecutors have said that they see the law as an attempt to end the death penalty in the state. "Do not allow North Carolina to continue this charade on its citizens, your constituents, with regards to the death penalty," the letter said, according to the Associated Press.

"It was, in reality, a permanent moratorium on the death penalty in North Carolina," Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said about Racial Justice Act, according to the Sun News.

The state House voted to nullify the Racial Justice Act in June. But the effort to repeal it in both chambers has been a top legislative priority for Republicans since they rose to power in 2010. Time and again, Republican lawmakers have been cited as saying that the law is merely an effort to stop the state’s executions altogether.

"They know historically if you are poor and African American, you are sentenced to death," state Rep. Earline Parmon told local reporters about the fight to keep the law alive. "This is proven by many studies across the nation. So we know racially motivated convictions to death row are real."