Local News

Retired prosecutors to research bias claims

Posted August 31, 2010 5:50 p.m. EDT
Updated August 31, 2010 6:24 p.m. EDT

— The state court system, which is already strained by case backlogs, has devised a plan to keep claims of racial bias in death penalty cases from clogging the courts even more.

Of the 159 inmates on North Carolina's death row, 152 have filed claims under the state's Racial Justice Act. Another 50 claims have been filed in cases awaiting trial.

The year-old law allows the inmates to use statistics and other evidence to prove racial bias resulted in the death sentences, and they are asking that their sentences be converted to life in prison without parole.

"The monumental task is the collection of information to respond to these motions," said Peg Dorer, executive director of the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys.

The organization has put together a team of former prosecutors to look at cases with Racial Justice Act claims, including reviewing trends in 16,000 first-degree murder cases prosecuted in the state over the past 20 years. Money from the state Administrative Office of the Courts will pay for the part-time help.

The goal is to help individual prosecutors prepare for arguments they'll face in court, Dorer said.

"They haven't started slowing things down. This is going to be going on for four years or longer," she said.

Tye Hunter, executive director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, a Durham nonprofit that represents inmates on death row, has suggested consolidating all of the Racial Justice Act cases so one judge could hear them, saving the state time and money.

"It's made me smile a little bit because the state says this is going to clog the court system," Hunter said. "Then, we've filed motions saying let's consolidate them so we don't clog the courts up, and their response to that is no."

Prosecutors say each case is different and must be examined individually, so they cannot be handled together.