Acceding to the demands of state prosecutors, the North Carolina Senate passed a bill Monday by a 27-14 vote that will effectively repeal the Racial Justice Act, jeopardizing what had been heralded as a step forward for the criminal justice system. The act, which a coalition effort passed in a Democrat-controlled legislature back in 2009, allows death row inmates to appeal on the grounds that racism played an operative role in their sentencing. The first defendant to make a case under the act, Marcus Robinson, will present his evidence in January.
For Professor James Coleman, Jr., who runs the Duke Law Center for Criminal Justice and Professional Responsibility, Monday’s repeal effort is just the latest attempt by state prosecutors to overturn a law that they think poses a threat to their offices:
“This week, after their failed attempt to prevent a senior black Superior Court judge from hearing the Racial Justice Act claims filed by inmate Marcus Robinson, all but one of the state’s district attorneys signed a letter asking the General Assembly to repeal the law, immediately. They want to avoid responding to the mountain of evidence indicating they have used peremptory challenges to deny qualified black jurors their constitutional right to serve on capital juries. Rather than defend their conduct in court, they seek to put it beyond the reach of the law.
The district attorneys opposed the Racial Justice Act in the legislature and lost. The district attorneys tried to obstruct the Racial Justice Act in the courts and lost. The district attorneys tried to recuse a judge they viewed as unfavorable and lost. At every turn, the district attorneys delayed implementation of the act.”
In their letter to the North Carolina General Assembly, the 43 district attorneys expressed their opposition to the measure, arguing that it could release more than 25 criminals back onto the streets and that it will clog up the court system with unnecessary and expensive cases.
But it’s tough to see where these criticisms are coming from. The statute clearly states that inmates can only have their sentences commuted from death to life without the possibility of parole, and only two cases have even been granted hearings. All in all, the total cost of the Racial Justice Act so far has cost much less than the amount the state would spend on another execution, estimates Coleman.
The act itself, which allows inmates to make their case through the use of statistical evidence, promised a new approach to dealing with institutionalized racism by avoiding the issue of the prosecutor’s intent.
Darryl Hunt, a black man who served 19 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, spoke about his experience with the criminal justice system at the NC Senate hearing on the bill yesterday.
“I was one vote away from the death penalty,” he told lawmakers. “One. And I had eleven whites and one black on my jury. If you do not think that race played a factor in my case, in me being arrested, charged, and convicted, then you’re not living here in North Carolina.”
The bill’s fate is now up to Gov. Bev Perdue (D-NC), who praised the Racial Justice Act’s passage back in 2009. She has not given any indication, however, whether or not she plans to veto the legislation. Ken Rose, one of the attorneys representing Marcus Robinson, believes that Perdue’s past support for the law will continue but cautions that the House vote to override the veto will be highly contested.
Given that a defendant in a case with a white victim is more than 2.5 times as likely to receive the death penalty in North Carolina, a veto appears the only just decision.