Why should we care whether or not unquestionably guilty men were tried and convicted under the specter of racial injustice?
Simply put, because in the state of North Carolina and around the country, such injustice means the difference between life and death.
This week the North Carolina Supreme Court heard arguments concerning the fate of four death row inmates whose sentences had been reduced following the passage of the state’s Racial Justice Act in 2009. Before its repeal in 2013, the law allowed defendants to challenge their conviction on the grounds that racial bias had affected their prosecution and sentencing. Jurors may be struck for any number of factors; however, a Michigan State study found race to be “substantial factor” in striking potential jurors in 173 death penalty cases in North Carolina.
According to Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), when these inmate challenges were heard in 2012 it was revealed by the defendants’ attorneys that some Cumberland County (the site for eleven death penalty trials) prosecutors
“…took racially charged notes during the jury selection process (noting, for example, that one juror was a “black wino”). Cumberland prosecutors also participated in a training seminar, sponsored by the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys, where prosecutors from across North Carolina were taught ways to get around the law barring them from striking jurors based on race.”
With the repeal of the Racial Justice Act, the state of North Carolina is now seeking to reinstate the previous death sentences for Marcus Robinson, Tilmon Golphin, Quintel Augustine, and Christina Walters. If this legal maneuver succeeds, then does this not esentially codify racial discrimination in jury selection?
And such discrimination is not limited to North Carolina. In 2011, Equal Justice Initiative released a report on racial discrimination in jury selection. The report looked at the jury selection processes in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee, and found shocking evidence of such racial discrimination in every one of these states.
Regardless of one’s opinion about the death penalty, if it is to be fairly applied, there can be no bias concerning who gets the death penalty or who decides who gets the death penalty. Sadly, this is another area where the system falls short. It is time for the courts not only to acknowledge the discrimination involved in the current system but to address it. Letting these new sentences stand in North Carolina seems like a place to start.
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