Local News

DA: Bias claims in death cases could clog courts

Posted August 4, 2010

— The state office that defends people facing death-penalty cases has urged defense attorneys to raise a claim of racial bias in all potential capital cases, which prosecutors say will slow the justice system.

North Carolina's Racial Justice Act allows defendants to argue that racial bias played a role in their sentences. Kentucky is the only other state that permits the use of statistical evidence to try to prove jurors were biased.

Lawyers for five death row prisoners filed motions Tuesday seeking to have their death sentences converted to life in prison without parole. The state Attorney General's Office has advised North Carolina’s district attorneys to expect that all 159 inmates on death row will file motions based on the Racial Justice Act.

Of 159 convicts on death row in North Carolina, 87 are black.

A recent 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.

The Office of the Capital Defender wants defense attorneys to file Racial Justice motions in pending cases, regardless of the race of the defendant.

Two Wake County cases where such motions have been filed involve Joshua Stepp, a white man charged with sexually abusing and murdering his white 10-month-old stepdaughter, and Armond Devega, a black man charged in a robbery spree that left two blacks dead.

"We're sort of surprised by some of the ones where there didn't appear to by anything racial about the case," Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said.

Jail generic, prison generic Growing list of defendants file race bias claims

Willoughby contends that sorting through statistics, jury make-up and decisions in scores of old cases will be a drag on the court system.

"It just makes it more cumbersome and expensive," he said. "This is part of a plan to do away with the death penalty."

Tye Hunter, executive director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, a Durham-based nonprofit that assists defendants in capital cases, said there's no effort to clog the courts with appeals to effectively end the death penalty in North Carolina.

"This is an opportunity for us to take a serious look at race and criminal justice," Hunter said.

He does agree with prosecutors, however, in suggesting that pre-trial Racial Justice motions be set aside to avoid bogging down potential death penalty cases.

"Lawyers have been filing these motions as place holders, not knowing whether they have a meritorious claim or not," he said. "If they get the death penalty, then they can raise it in post-conviction."

Gov. Beverly Perdue, who signed the act into law a year ago, said it's important to let the racial review process work.

"I would urge folks to work with the courts and with the process," Perdue said. "We're in the very new beginnings of something that nobody knew how it would work. America is being led by North Carolina."

Hunter also recommended that all of the death row appeals under the Racial Justice Act be consolidated and handled by a special judge.


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  • gunny462 Aug 5, 2010

    "The implication is that jurors are biased in favor of white victims."

    The problem with that is that both the defense and prosecuting attorneys pick the jurists. And why is it that only two states use statistical data? Because it can be manipulated.

  • Inter Alios Aug 5, 2010

    beachboater: I'm pretty sure the story says a defendant is 3X more likely to get the death penalty when the "victim" is white, not when the defendant is black. The implication is that jurors are biased in favor of white victims.

  • NCAries Aug 5, 2010

    There will never be a time without racism as long as someone can or does play the race card.

    There will never be a time without racism because that is the founding principle of western civilization.

  • beachboater Aug 5, 2010

    Something doesn't add up. Word is the a black is 3 times more likely to receive the death penalty than a white. There are 159 prisoners on death row. Of those, 87 are black. My trusty little calculator tells me that 54% of those on death row are black.

    Using those numbers and percentages, there would have to be many more white murderers than black. According to the news, and general concensus of our readers, it seems that the opposite is true, ie, there are more black murderers than white.

    Where do these numbers come from?

  • NCAries Aug 5, 2010

    But just wait to hear the complaints when white defendants start making equal use of the law!

    How can they...when has there ever been an all of color jury to hear a case against a non-color person? Jury of his peers indeed...make the system fair to everyone then noone can complain...and therein lies the problem.

  • mchljam2 Aug 5, 2010

    Well I guess anything to save their miserable worthless necks! One day they will face the ultimate judge, interesting to think what their excuse will be then?

  • GoGreen Aug 5, 2010

    "Levon "Bo" Jones Fifth Innocent Death Row Inmate Freed In Past 11 Months And 129th Since 1973 "

    Levon is black. Makes ya' go hmmm!

  • gingerlynn Aug 5, 2010

    I wonder if Bev considered the expense when she signed her bill into law? Or the clogged courts?

  • ncguy Aug 5, 2010

    Great criminals costing society more money.

    Stop the liberal madness!

  • bill0 Aug 5, 2010

    "I guess I'm not the majority you refer to." - Almost nobody thinks they have biases. However, the simple fact is that people of all races have biases of some sort. It shows up in a variety of ways, whether it is where you live, who you eat lunch with, what movies you go to see, where you shop etc. It is a million tiny choices you make, not just the "big picture" opinions you express. In a trial, all those little tiny choices add up to about a 3 to 1 ratio of juries imposing the death sentence. Pretending that disparity doesn't exist doesn't help victims families or the public at large.

    Step 1 to correcting a problem is admitting it exists. People who commit a crime should be punished for that crime and the punishment shouldn't have anything to do with race. Unfortunately, the statistics show that that isn't the way our justice system is working right now.