North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act Tested

One year ago, the state of North Carolina took a bold step in confronting the racial bias at work in their death penalty system by passing the Racial Justice Act. This legislation passed in order to better ensure that no person would be executed because of racial bias in North Carolina.

This week, five death row inmates in that state have asked the courts to change their death sentences to sentences of life without parole. All can prove that race played a key role in their trials.

The cases are supported by three new comprehensive studies of the death penalty in North Carolina. One of the new studies, from Michigan State University, shows that prosecutors in capital trials used peremptory strikes to exclude eligible blacks from juries at more than twice the rate that they excluded whites. Of the 159 inmates now on death row in North Carolina, 31 were sentenced by all-white juries, and another 38 had only one minority on their sentencing juries.

Two more studies, one from Michigan State University and one from the University of Colorado, show that those who convicted of killing whites are more likely to get the death penalty than those who are convicted of killing blacks. The MSU study found that a defendant is 2.6 times more likely to receive a death sentence if the victim is white. The UC study found that a defendant is 2.96 times more likely to get a death sentence if the victim is white.

The findings echo previous North Carolina studies as well as studies nationwide. In all five of the North Carolina cases now testing the new law, the victims were white and the defendants were minorities. In all five cases, prosecutors struck eligible blacks from the juries at far greater rates than eligible whites. And, in several cases, prosecutors rejected eligible black jurors even while accepting similar white jurors. Three of the defendants were sentenced by all-white juries, and in other cases, only one or two minorities sat on the juries — even in Martin County, where nearly half the population was black.

The Racial Justice Act went into effect on August 11, 2009. Kentucky is the only other state with similar, but less comprehensive, legislation.

North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue said when she signed the act that it “ensures that when North Carolina hands down our state’s harshest punishment to our most heinous criminals, the decision is based on the facts and the law, not racial prejudice.”

The problems in North Carolina are also reflected in Tennessee. On June 1, 2010, the Eqaul Justice Initiative (EJI) released a new report, “Illegal Racial Discriminatino in Jury Selection: A Continuing Legacy,” which is the most comprehensive study of racial bias in jury selection since the United States Supreme Court tried to limit the practice in Batson v. Kentucky in 1986.

During two years of research in eight southern states (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee), EJI interviewed over 100 African-Americans who were excluded from juries  based on their race and reviewed hundreds of court documents and records.  Appellate courts in each of the these states–with the exception of Tennessee, whose appellate courts have NEVER granted relief based on a Batson claim in a criminal case–have been forced to recognize the grave problems with racial bias in jury selection.  

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