Local News

DA: Bias test an attempt to end death penalty

Posted August 6, 2009 5:17 p.m. EDT
Updated August 6, 2009 6:38 p.m. EDT

— Legislation that would allow statistical evidence to establish racial bias as the reason prosecutors sought or jurors imposed death sentences could do away with capital punishment in North Carolina, Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said.

Lawmakers gave final approval to the so-called Racial Justice Act late Wednesday. Gov. Beverly Perdue has indicated she would sign the measure, making North Carolina the second state – Kentucky was the first – with a bias test to challenge death penalty cases.

"For the first time, as a matter of public policy, the General Assembly has essentially stated that race should not be a consideration in the imposition of the death penalty," said Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, the bill's sponsor. "We're going to be out front in this country in ridding our nation of these types of problems."

The proposal would allow inmates on death row and future defendants in capital cases to use statistics to argue their death sentences were racially motivated. Current inmates would have one year to appeal their sentences under the bill.

A University of North Carolina study found defendants were 3.5 times more likely to be sentenced to die for killing a white person than for killing one of any other race.

"It was concern that we needed to rid our system of the prejudices that might be exercised," McKissick said, adding that he thinks it would be extremely difficult to eliminate all racial bias in the justice system.

Prosecutors statewide have opposed the legislation, saying it will make trying capital cases exorbitantly expensive, which could deter district attorneys from seeking the death penalty in any case.

"It's a thinly veiled attempt to get rid of the death penalty and cloak it in racial terms," Willoughby said. "It doesn't matter about the race. Showing some statistical abnormalities about the numbers in one case or the other can be used by anyone, irrespective of race."

North Carolina hasn't executed an inmate in three years because the death penalty has been tied up in legal disputes over the role of physicians in executions and state officials' approval of protocols for carrying out a death sentence.

Willoughby and other prosecutors said they fear setting convicted killers free. Almost half of those on death row were sentenced for crimes committed before guidelines were adopted in 1994 that eliminate the possibility of parole for life sentences in murder cases.

He pointed to the cases of James Edward Thomas, who killed Teresa West at the Sir Walter Raleigh Tourist Home in 1986, and Elmer McNeill, who with his brother killed two Food Lion clerks during a 1993 robbery. Thomas is black and West was white; McNeill and his victims were white.

"It certainly will be difficult to go back and look at cases 15 to 20 years ago, to somehow prove the actions that juries took were biased," he said. "In most of those, we don't know what race the jurors were. We don't know what went on in the jury room during the deliberations, and to assume that for some reason that there was some racial bias, I think, is insulting and false."

McKissick said the law wouldn't allow anyone out on parole, saying any death sentences found to be flawed would be converted to life in prison without parole.

"(Releasing prisoners) is not the intent of the bill. That is not the purpose of the bill. It's just to make sure that, when people are sentenced to be killed, it's done without regard to race," he said.

Willoughby said he thinks the bill will make it difficult to sentence anybody to death in North Carolina.

"I think it will put the brakes on," he said. "This case is an example of an attempt to manipulate statistics to achieve some social goal, which is to do away with the death penalty."