NC death penalty cases in limbo after Racial Justice Act's repeal

Posted June 20, 2013

— 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that have passed as evidence of the necessity for the law, they have decided that it's evidence that the law should be repealed."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.


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  • josephlawrence43 Jun 22, 2013

    There is an old axiom within the socialist culture/community. Foreign to everyone else but it goes like this: "There is no such thing as individual guilt--only the collective guilt of society". In other words, those claiming racial bias in their convictions are saying they didn't commit the crime--the conditions in the society in which they live are the guilty ones'.

  • rcrdngcountry Jun 22, 2013

    its time to get the death penalty moving in nc, and carry out
    the excutions of cold blooded killers who take the lifes of
    innocent people.

  • Hugh Jass Jun 21, 2013

    This is done, time to move on.

  • bigsix842 Jun 21, 2013

    I, too, believe that the racial justice act was a racist justice act, and should have been repealed. It did terrific damage to our state, letting stone cold killers off death row under the hands of a racist judge.

  • goldenosprey Jun 21, 2013

    "Yep! He's right! The majority of the voters in NC are a bunch of chin-drooling backwoods folks in overalls, people with more tattoos than teeth," birkie74693

    Birkie, that goes beyond cynical and undermines any credibility you seek to establish. It makes you sound no better or less narrow-minded than those you criticize.

  • birkie74693 Jun 21, 2013

    Someone sez: "Thank you Governor for doing what the majority of the voters in NC wanted you to do. Keep up the good work."

    Yep! He's right! The majority of the voters in NC are a bunch of chin-drooling backwoods folks in overalls, people with more tattoos than teeth, who want NOTHING to do with "racial justice." They hate everybody with a different skin color, and they don't care how many innocent people are put to death because of it. Yep, Mr. McCrony is doing their bidding.

  • goldenosprey Jun 21, 2013

    Conservatives mouths are watering at the prospect of killing under imprimatur of State Action.

    Apparently, pedsrndad believes the death penalty is a moral obligation but ineffective because of lag time, and the only way it's really juicy revenge is to throw out the whole antiquated due process thing.

  • 68_dodge_polara Jun 21, 2013

    So glad to see this finally repealed. This law had two purposes one to make a de-facto ban on the death penalty which it did. However, it's the second objective of the law that stopped me from supporting it. The law was written by lawyers to fleece as much money from the state as possible by creating the ability to keep the justice process tied up in court for ever and in this regard it has worked wonders. Now let's pass a law banning the death penalty all together and be done with it.

  • antoniowillia20 Jun 21, 2013


    Who in the world can you claim Justice was done if an innocent person was put to death?

    No sane person would ever claim that.

    Now in the 12 cases of innocent people being put to death the Juries where all white. Out of the 12 put to death only 1 was white. In 3 of those cases the person whom DNA said commited the crime where white but 2 black males and 1 Hispanic where put to death instead.

    Let me know if anyone wants the links. I have them bookmarked and I'll post them.

  • stymieindurham Jun 21, 2013

    It is a shame that according to the major news media there has not been one thing said that they agree on what our Governor has done since he took office.
    Don't expect any less.