Local News

DA: Bias claims in death cases could clog courts

Posted August 4, 2010 6:01 p.m. EDT
Updated August 4, 2010 6:57 p.m. EDT

— 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.

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.