A North Carolina trial judge recently resentenced three death-row inmates to life without parole under the state’s Racial Justice Act, which allows inmates to have their sentences reduced if it can be shown they were tainted by racial bias. In the trials of two blacks and one Lumbee Indian, the judge found “powerful evidence”of such bias.
The law does not require proof that the bias was deliberate. But, in this case, the judge found “intentional” prosecutorial bias aimed at securing a death sentence for the defendants, bringing grave “harm to African-Americans and to the integrity of the justice system.”
The bias was manifested in the prosecutors’ use of peremptory strikes of prospective jurors during the jury selection process. In one case, the prosecutor struck prospective blacks at two times the rate for whites. In each of the other two cases, the rate was almost four times greater. Even when adjustments were made for other factors, like the criminal record of a prospective juror, race was “a significant factor” in the rigorous ways that the North Carolina statute required the defendants to prove.
The judge found that words and deed of the prosecutors themselves confirmed his conclusions about racial influence in the jury selection process.
The judge observed that the injustice abundantly proven in each case was common throughout North Carolina during the past two decades. Prosecutors excluded blacks from juries for going to church too often or for other reasons that “simply make no sense” and that could be explained only by intentional and ugly bias.
The Wilmington Star News published the editorial, "Racial Justice Act needed to ensure equal treatment under law," also on December 26.
No matter one’s opinion of the death penalty, the Constitution requires fairness in meting out justice. That process cannot be fair if race was a factor in sentencing, as a Superior Court judge determined earlier this month in commuting the death sentences of three convicted killers to life in prison.
It was the second test of the Racial Justice Act and the first argued since the General Assembly restricted the use of certain data and made it harder for death row inmates to prove sentencing bias.
Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks of Fayetteville was instantly criticized for finding that race played a significant role in imposing the death sentence. But his ruling commuting their sentences to life without parole was clear: “This conclusion is based primarily on the words and deeds of the prosecutors involved in these cases,” he told the courtroom. “Despite protestations to the contrary, their words, their deeds, speak volumes.”
Our justice system contains boundaries that prosecutors and law officers must abide by. They do not get to tweak the system for people they think deserve the ultimate punishment. Doing so sullies the entire justice system.
Also looking at the RJA cases, ChapelBoro posted, "Kinnaird On Recent Racial Justice Act Case: 'It Was A Good Outcome'," by Anne Brenner.
Senator Ellie Kinnaird has been a longtime advocate for fairness in death penalty sentences—and she’s speaking in favor of one particular recent decision that involved the newly-revised racial justice act.
Earlier this month, Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks re-sentenced three death penalty inmates to life in prison, after he concluded that race was a factor in their original sentencing. Kinnaird says this case points out why all death penalty cases must be carefully examined.
“These were heinous crimes, and a lot of people feel that the only penalty that’s fitting for a heinous crime is the death penalty,” she says. “But the death penalty has so many flaws in it, and this case showed one of them, which is that there has been racial bias.”