NC death penalty cases in limbo after Racial Justice Act's repeal
Posted June 20, 2013
Raleigh, N.C. — Supporters and opponents of North Carolina's Racial Justice Act disagree about the necessity and effectiveness of the controversial legislation, but there appears to be consensus on both sides about one thing.
No one knows for sure when executions will resume in the state or what will happen with pending claims of racial bias from most of the 153 people on death row.
On Wednesday, Gov. Pat McCrory signed a controversial piece of legislation that fully repeals the Racial Justice Act, which allowed death-row inmates to have their sentences reduced to life in prison if they could prove racial bias influenced the outcome of their cases.
Since 2009, four death-row inmates have been resentenced because of the law.
The latest measure ensures death-row inmates can't file new claims, but observers say it's likely the court system will decide whether the law should be applied retroactively.
"Everyone who has made a claim under the Racial Justice Act is probably going to have to litigate over whether or not they continue to have a claim," said Sarah Preston, policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina.
Preston says the claims were filed under a valid law and that she believes defense attorneys are going to argue that the cases should proceed.
As for its repeal, Preston says she is disappointed and thinks there is plenty of evidence to show that racial bias plays a role in capital murder trials.
For example, a Michigan State study found evidence of North Carolina prosecutors striking black jurors from capital cases at more than twice the rate of others over two decades.
"We think that essentially this legislature is sweeping evidence of racial bias under the rug, and it's really disappointing," Preston said. "Instead of looking at the cases that have passed as evidence of the necessity for the law, they have decided that it's evidence that the law should be repealed."
Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby also says he expects the matter to end up in the appellate courts.
He and other district attorneys across the state have said the Racial Justice Act was a thinly veiled attack on the death penalty and did nothing but log-jam the court system.
"The premise of it is that somehow, because juries were white, that they discriminated against people, both white and black," Willoughby said. "The whole underlying concept of it is ridiculous."
He says that the U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled that death-row inmates are entitled to relief if they can show discrimination in their case and that the Racial Justice Act "came about and set up new artificial obstacles and barriers that were designed simply to put a moratorium on the death penalty and not to promote justice for anyone."
But supporters of the Racial Justice Act, including Marcelle Clowes, North Carolina coordinator with Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation, disagree.
"It had nothing to do with getting rid of the death penalty," Clowes said. "This was just about rooting out and correcting racially biased sentences that happened 20 years ago.
North Carolina hasn't executed an inmate since 2006, and both proponents and opponents believe the repeal makes way for executions to restart.
"I think that's certainly what sponsors of this (legislation) believe – that by doing away with (the Racial Justice Act), it would remove one more obstacle and allow these cases to proceed on," Willoughby said. "For most of them, they've been stymied for years, and we haven't had any significant movement in executions in five or six years, which is not fair to the victims."
But with most of the current cases tied up in courts, it's also unclear when that could be.