There is extensive press in North Carolina. This post will link to news articles; the next, commentary. Yesterday was the deadline to file a claim under the state RJA law.
"119 on death row allege bias," is the title of Anne Blythe's report in the News & Observer.
North Carolina's death row could be much smaller if all the inmates claiming that racial bias played a part in their trials and death sentences are successful in challenges filed over the past week.
Tuesday was the deadline for death row inmates to seek to have their death sentences converted to life without parole under the fledgling Racial Justice Act, and by late afternoon, the state Attorney General's Office had received notice that 119 of the 159 death row inmates were seeking such relief.
That might not be the final tally. Some motions could have been filed late in the day in courts across the state and not yet forwarded to the state attorney general. Nevertheless, the sheer volume of requests has caused concerns in courthouses throughout North Carolina about the process for handling the cases.
Lawyers at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham said they expected most, but not all of the people sentenced to death in North Carolina to seek relief under the historic Racial Justice Act, signed into law Aug. 11, 2009.
The law, one of only two in the country, was adopted last year after months of contention along party lines and much opposition from prosecutors, law enforcement organizations and victims rights advocates. It is designed to combat racial disparities in death sentences and has prompted claims from white and black inmates.
The law allows death row inmates and defendants in death penalty cases to challenge prosecutions on grounds of bias. It also allows judges to consider statistics and anecdotal trends of racial disparities in death sentences, as well as testimony, to change a death sentence to life in prison without parole. A judge could also consider the same kind of information to keep prosecutors from seeking capital punishment at the outset of a case.
Blythe also wrote the Charlotte Observer report, "119 on death row allege bias."
In the cases of the death row inmates, defense attorneys are pushing for a streamlined process, by which some of the weightier issues of the new law can be decided early on by the state Supreme Court and applied en masse.
Prosecutors, who before the law was adopted complained that challenges by death row inmates would bog down the courts, are now pushing for cases to be heard individually.
"Each one of these cases has unique facts and circumstances, and each one involves the most serious crime and the most severe punishment," said Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby. "To lump a bunch of them together would be like doing a Rev. (Sun Myung) Moon wedding, and it shouldn't be."
Last week, after five death row inmates filed the first challenges under the year-old Racial Justice Act, attorneys on three of the cases asked the state Supreme Court to consolidate all the cases to save money and court time.
The attorneys asked that the cases be declared "exceptional and assigned to one Superior Court judge who would rule on issues common to each."
Though discussions among defense lawyers and prosecutors have been under way for months, Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for state Attorney General Roy Cooper, said no decisions had been made. Justice Department lawyers were continuing to consult with N.C. district attorneys on the most appropriate way to handle the cases, Talley said.
The AP post is, "Blanche Moore among 119 death row inmates who have filed claims," via the Times-News.
Dozens of inmates around North Carolina — both black and white — have challenged their death sentences under a new law that allows them to argue racial bias -- including convicted arsenic poisoner Blanche Taylor Moore.
The office of North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper said some 119 inmates have filed a claim under the Racial Justice Act ahead of Tuesday’s deadline. A spokeswoman for Cooper said there were more filings expected as inmates seek to have their death sentences converted to terms of life in prison.“There are undoubtedly other cases that have been filed where our office has not received a copy yet,” said spokeswoman Noelle Talley.
Of 159 convicts on death row in North Carolina, 99 are nonwhite. The 87 black inmates make up more than half the death row population, while U.S. Census estimates put the black share of the statewide population at roughly 22 percent.
Under the terms of the Racial Justice Act in 2009, convicts can use statistical evidence to argue bias in their sentencing. The law allows judges to consider evidence that one racial group is being punished more harshly than members of other racial groups.
The Asheville Citizen-Times has, "119 NC death row inmates alleging racial bias," written by Mike Baker.
A recently released study by researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder and Boston's Northeastern University concluded that a convicted killer is three times more likely to get a death sentence in North Carolina if the victim is white rather than black.
But prosecutors have expected white convicts to use the Racial Justice Act as well, noting that an inmate only needs to point to a statistic that indicates they are more likely to get a death sentence than someone else.
The Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation is involved in about 40 of the cases. Ken Rose, a staff attorney with the group, said all the cases raise the question of the racial makeup of juries. He believes there were systematic efforts to strike black jurors from cases and that prosecutors may have been unconsciously limiting the diversity of the juries.
“There's widespread and pervasive evidence of disparities,” Rose said.
"Bias filings include a twist," by Michael Hewlett is in the Winston-Salem Journal.
Blanche Taylor Moore, a white woman from Forsyth County who was convicted in 1990 of using arsenic to kill her white boyfriend, is among 119 death-row inmates in North Carolina challenging their sentences under the Racial Justice Act.
The deadline to file claims was yesterday.
Moore's submission of a claim alleging racial bias might be a surprise to some, but legal experts say that it's the race of the victim that really matters.
"Capital punishment in this state and others is primarily used for the protection of white life," said Mark Rabil, an assistant capital defender in Winston-Salem. "It doesn't matter what the race of the defendant is."
The motions all cite the results of a study done by Michigan State University showing that a defendant in North Carolina is 2.6 times more likely to be sentenced to death if at least one of the victims is white.
That study, done by two law professors, also showed that out of the 159 people on death row in North Carolina, 31 of them had all-white juries and 38 had only one person of color on their jury.
The Racial Justice Act, signed into law in August 2009, allows death-row inmates to use statistics and other evidence to prove that racial bias resulted in their death sentences. The inmates are asking that their sentences be converted to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The Wilmington Star News article is "Bias claim filings of death row inmates grow," by Veronica Gonzalez.
In the motions alleging racial bias, attorneys cite two studies of the state's death penalty system, and they rely heavily on statistical data from two Michigan State University assistant law professors, who analyzed cases from 1990 to 2009. The study from Catherine Grosso and Barbara O'Brien showed that those who kill white victims are 2.6 times more likely to get the death penalty regardless of aggravating or mitigating circumstances. Additionally, the study found that black potential jurors were struck at more than twice the rate of whites.
For example, the study found that 31 of North Carolina's death row prisoners were sentenced to death by all-white juries, and 38 of them were sentenced to death by juries with only one person of color.
In District 5, prosecutors were 2.1 times as likely to strike qualified black jurors over white jurors, the researchers found.
In cases where at least one white victim was killed, the likelihood of a defendant getting the death penalty was 3.8 times greater than when a non-white victim died.
In addition, prosecutors were three times more likely to go capital on a case when there was a racial minority defendant and one white victim.
Broken down even further, researchers found that in New Hanover County, a defendant was six times more likely to be sentenced to die when a white victim was killed.
One current trial is also being watched under RJA provisions. "Racial mix of jury pool criticized," is Anne Blythe's report in today's News & Observer.
The Wake County public defender asked a Superior Court judge this week to dismiss an entire jury, saying too few blacks were in the pool of potential jurors for the murder trial of a Garner mother accused of killing her toddler son.
Judge Ripley Rand rejected the challenge filed by Bryan Collins, Wake County's chief public defender, in the trial of Sherita Nicole McNeil. But the exchange shows some of the difficulties that defense lawyers and prosecutors have seating a racially diverse jury that mirrors the community.
The challenge came a week after two Michigan State University law school researchers released findings from a detailed, comprehensive study they are conducting on race and the death penalty in North Carolina. The study not only examined 5,800 cases that were eligible for the death penalty from 1990 through 2009, it also looked at jury selection.
When making his challenge, Collins pointed out that only three of the potential jurors in a pool of 30 were black, and two had been dismissed before all 12 jury members had been seated.
In 2008, Collins argued, Wake County's population was 20 percent black, double the percentage in the first potential jury pool for McNeil's trial.