On a 27-17 vote Monday night, the North Carolina state Senate approved Senate Bill 9, titled “No Discriminatory Purpose in the Death Penalty”, repealing the two year old Racial Justice Act. The bill now goes to Governor Bev Perdue’s desk.
The Racial Justice Act was passed in 2009 over the objections of prosecutors and allows death-row inmates to petition judges to commute their sentences to life in prison without parole if they can show evidence of racial bias in their cases. Since then, district attorneys around the state have been leading the charge to repeal the law and they recently stepped up their campaign efforts because the first case is scheduled to be heard in January.
The Racial Justice Act was passed after the wrongful convictions and subsequent exonerations of three black defendants. One of the exonerees was sentenced by an all white jury and the other two had only one black juror on each of their juries. In all three cases at least one of the victims was white.
A comprehensive study conducted by Michigan State University on capital sentencing in North Carolina showed that for the 159 people on North Carolina’s death row at the time, 31 of those defendants had all-white juries and 38 of them had only one person of color on their jury. In other words, more than 40% of the defendants on North Carolina’s death row were sentenced to death by a jury that included either one or zero persons of color. The study also found that statewide, prosecutors struck qualified black jurors at more than twice the rate at which they struck white jurors. In addition, it revealed that in cases with at least one white victim, a defendant is 2.6 times more likely to be sentenced to death than if the case does not involve a white victim.
Racial bias has been and continues to be a factor in who receives a death sentence in this country and who does not. In the 1987 McCleskey v. Kemp decision, the U. S. Supreme Court acknowledged that though racial bias, particularly the race of the victim, affects the death penalty system, because McCleskey could not prove purposeful discrimination in his particular trial, there was no constitutional violation.
TADP urges Governor Perdue to veto SB9. We will keep you informed of any updates or actions you can take in support of maintaing this important statute in North Carolina.
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