State News

N.C. death row inmates look for life in new law

Posted August 3, 2010

Death Row, Death Penalty, Execution

— Five death row inmates are testing a new North Carolina law that would allow them to argue racial bias played a role in their sentences, and they may soon be joined by dozens of others.

Lawyers for five prisoners filed motions in Davie, Forsyth, Martin, Randolph and Union counties Tuesday, seeking to have their death sentences converted to life in prison without parole.

The prisoners, all of who are black and had white victims, argue that racial bias, in the form of all-white or mostly white juries, helped land them on death row. Under the terms of a 2009 state law, the Racial Justice Act, the prisoners can use statistical evidence to argue their cases.

The law allows judges to consider evidence that one racial group is being punished more harshly than members of other racial groups. Only Kentucky has an equivalent law.

“We’re trying to take an objective look at it,” said Tye Hunter, executive director of the Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation, which announced the filings Tuesday.

Statistical analysis of death penalty sentences allow the state to know if some convicts are likelier to face capital punishment at least partly because of race, Hunter said.

“It’s good to have some facts, and I’m confident North Carolina can figure out an appropriate way to improve,” he said.

Hunter expects there will be more motions filed before an Aug. 10 deadline set by the law, but doesn’t know how many prisoners might get involved. 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.

District attorneys across the state are bracing for a wave of new motions filed under the law, including some filed by white death row inmates.

“We’re expecting all the people on death row to file these claims,” said Peg Dorer, director of the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys.

“The way the law is written, it’s all about numbers, it’s not really about color,” she said. “All you’ve got to prove is that some number somewhere makes you stick out for some reason.”

Dorer said the office of state Attorney General Roy Cooper 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.

Messages left with Cooper’s office weren’t immediately returned Tuesday.

The motions come shortly after the findings of a study by researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder and Boston’s Northeastern University, which 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.

Seth Edwards, president of the district attorneys conference and top prosecutor in Martin, Washington, Tyrrell, Hyde and Beaufort counties, has said race doesn’t play a factor in prosecutors’ decisions to seek the death penalty.

The five prisoners who filed motions Tuesday are Kenneth Rouse, who was convicted in Randolph County in 1992; Guy LeGrande, convicted in Stanly County in 1996; Shawn Bonnett, convicted in Martin County in 1996; Jeremy Murrell, convicted in Forsyth County in 2006; and Jathiyah Al-Bayyinah, convicted in Davie County in 1999 and again in 2003.

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  • mshood7 Aug 4, 2010

    I belive in the death penaly for those who take innocent lives. I also believe in the death penalty for COP KILLERS! I am sick and tired of those those who hide behind and play the racism card for their evil and clandestine engagements. Anything short of executing those who kill the innocent with cold and calucalted plans deserve to be take out of society ...PERMANENTLY! They won't get another chance at murder ev again. And that my friends is JUSTICE! When we see the preportion of crime where blacks outnumber all others with burglaries, auto theft and rape and robbery, then show me some enlightening statistic and then I might change my mind. But we know what is brewing now and its not pretty to see those who have no hope, because BIG GOV'T keeps taking hope and propsperity and independence away and its the black communie that is being dumbed down with a pat on the head and their hands held our for OBAMA MONEY. The democrat party of black elitist socialist have had their day. This n

  • patricia5 Aug 4, 2010

    Thejury system needs to include everyone and apparently it does not.Black jurors are excluded at twice the rate of white jurors in NC.That needs to be fixed. nice hats

  • jimbo141 Aug 4, 2010

    You could argue in a single case that an all-white jury might not reflect the consideration of race, but when more than 40% of the juries were all-white or nearly all-white and when prosecutors used their discretion
    jcoleman

    thers no aurgument there, but look at the crime statistics. i think all the way around race needs to be left out, but it is being used as an excuse for bad behavior, bad grades, and crime. and if any one disagrees, they are called racist! people should quit having several kids by several women, man up and graduate high school by working hard for it, support their children, and be active in their childrens lives! not expect society to support them! that goes for all of us. if you want something, get a job and WORK for it!

  • jcoleman Aug 4, 2010

    Many of these comments demonstrate how difficult it is have an intelligent discussion about anything that involves race. Many of the people who comment focus only on whether the defendant committed the crime. In a capital case, that is not the only issue that is important. These five men are raising questions about the fairness of the trial in which they were convicted and sentenced to death. These men were sentenced by juries from which all or nearly all of the qualified black jurors were removed by prosecutors. Their trials could have taken place before the Civil War or more than 100 years ago and their all-white juries would have been the same. What the statistical studies demonstrate is that it is not a coincidence that black people were excluded from the juries. You could argue in a single case that an all-white jury might not reflect the consideration of race, but when more than 40% of the juries were all-white or nearly all-white and when prosecutors used their discretion

  • lumberman Aug 4, 2010

    My last jury experience was for a black man who was charged with killing a black man in prison while already serving a life sentence for killing another black man. I bet the second victim wish the death penalty had been in use in N.C. I was excused after waiting 6 days. When asked if I thought the defendant had done anything wrong I replied I sure hope so if not the State of N.C. had wasted a bunch of money and a lot of my time.

  • jimbo141 Aug 4, 2010

    Look now, there is no room for that kind of common sense thinking in our society!! You should be ashamed of yourself!! Cut it out!!
    Redneck Fun

    why don't you look at the statistics! i agree w/us vet, and am a vet too! so i suppose i served so you can make false accusations just to stir the pot.

  • jimbo141 Aug 4, 2010

    life in prison, should be just that, LIFE IN PRISON! what about the victims? and race has absolutly NOTHING to do with it! people need to quit playing the "race card"!

  • Deep Thought Aug 4, 2010

    What a crock.
    Once again the NAACP gets what it wants in spite of what decided. Why even bother with trials that will be disregarded to be in line with the Racial Justice Act. Guess victims just had bad luck in the race of their killers.

  • fearna Aug 4, 2010

    Stop playing the race card and get to the root of the problem. Some people make poor choices and need to be held accountable. Structured sentencing was initiated for a reason - if you commit a crime, you are fully aware of the consequences, and the consequence for a class A felony is the death penalty. The justice system needs to enforce that law consistently and stop wasting my $$ on trying to wezsel out of a punishment for a crime that was committed with the knowledge that the punishment is a possible death sentence. That is no secret!!

  • gmarcum Aug 3, 2010

    I agree with this. Except instead of life in prison-reduce their time on death row and put them down...

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