"N.C. takes aim at bias in death penalty," is the title of Gary Wright's report in today's Charlotte Observer. Here's an extended excerpt of this must read:
Gov. Bev Perdue on Tuesday signed a bill that will allow murder suspects and death-row inmates to try to prove racial bias was behind prosecutors' decision to seek the death penalty or jurors' decision to impose it.
North Carolina is the second state in the nation with a law designed to stop black defendants from being punished more severely than whites. Kentucky is the other state.
“I have always been a supporter of the death penalty, but I have always believed it must be carried out fairly,” Perdue said. “The Racial Justice Act 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 governor said the Racial Justice Act aims to ensure that prosecutors and jurors are colorblind. It allows defendants to present statistical evidence that suggests racial bias may have played a role in their cases.
“While our criminal justice system will continue to have the death penalty, racial disparities have no place whatsoever in North Carolina's criminal justice system,” Perdue said.
Death penalty critics have long argued that black suspects, particularly those who are poor, are more likely to get the death penalty than white suspects – especially when the person they kill is white.
Recent cases of prosecutorial misconduct in North Carolina involving black defendants helped fuel demands for reform. At least two black death row inmates have been exonerated after misconduct came to light.
Of 163 inmates now on North Carolina's death row, slightly more than half – 88 – are black. African Americans make up about 21 percent of the state's population.
“I'm convinced that race has played a role in the system,” said Charlotte lawyer and death penalty expert Jim Cooney. “It's hard to believe it hasn't over the past 30 years.
“That doesn't mean that prosecutors are racists. There are any number of points where race could have an influence. It could be in the jury selection process or in the decision of the jury.”
An Observer investigation in 2000 found that those who killed whites in the Carolinas were more likely to wind up on death row than those who killed blacks. The paper also found that blacks who killed whites were three times more likely to face execution as murder suspects generally.
The new law will allow murder suspects at trial, as well those already sentenced to death, to present evidence of bias.
It would also allow judges, for the first time, to consider statistical evidence that suggests race played a key factor in putting a disproportionate number of people from a racial group on trial for their lives or on death row. If the judge agrees with the evidence, prosecutors could be prohibited from seeking a death sentence. A judge could also overturn a death sentence on appeal and impose life without parole.
Courts have not considered statistical evidence suggesting racial discrimination since 1987, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that such evidence is not relevant to individual cases. The justices, however, said states could enact laws to allow it.
A 2001 study in North Carolina found that the likelihood of murder suspects' receiving a death sentence was 3.5 times higher for those who killed whites than for those who killed blacks and other minorities.
The AP report is, "Perdue signs death penalty revision," via the Greensboro News & Record.
Gov. Beverly Perdue on Tuesday made North Carolina the second state to allow defendants to use statistical evidence to prove racial bias played a role in putting them on death row.
North Carolina joins Kentucky with a law that aims to prevent black defendants from being punished more harshly what whites.
The law allows judges to consider statistical evidence that indicates race played a key factor in putting a disproportionate number of people from a racial group on death row, or on trial for their lives. A judge also could consider sworn testimony from legal system insiders like prosecutors, law enforcement officers, or jurors that death sentences were sought or imposed more often on members of one race than another. A judge who agrees with the evidence could limit a sentence to life in prison without parole.
The law was opposed by district attorneys, sheriffs and victims' advocates who said it would make death penalty prosecutions too difficult. North Carolina has not had an execution in nearly three years. Killers now on death row have one year to file a claim that racial prejudice skewed their death sentence verdict.
"Make no mistake, this law has little to do with justice and nothing to do with guilt or innocence. For the first time in North Carolina, the statistical composition of the inmates on death row will outweigh the facts of a particular case in the determination of punishment," said Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham. "Families of the victims of the most heinous crimes will now be subjected to the further delay of true justice for them and their murdered loved ones."
But House Speaker Joe Hackney, D-Orange, said the law keeps the death penalty while adding a condition that tries to ensure it is applied evenly.
"I've spent most of my life in courtrooms across North Carolina and I have seen the subtle impact of race in our courtrooms," said Hackney, an attorney. "This opens the courtroom door for those who believe that they can show that it had an impact on their case."
Advocates pointed to research such as a 1990 report by the U.S. General Accounting Office that said dozens of studies have found "a pattern of evidence indicating racial disparities in the charging, sentencing, and imposition of the death penalty."
Since North Carolina's last execution in August 2006, successful death penalty prosecutions have nearly come to a halt and public support for executions has waned.
Just one convict was sent to death row last year and five people have been acquitted of the charges that initially placed them on death row since 2000. Of the 59 capital convicts who had their cases retried this decade, only two were again sentenced to death.
The Gaston Gazette looks at the potential local impact of the new law in, "Racial Justice Act becomes law, but still has doubters." It's written by Michael Barrett.
More on the 1987 Supreme Court ruling in McCleskey v. Kemp, via Oyez. The Court rejected the use of statistical evidence of racism in McCleskey's case.