Bill would abolish Racial Justice Act, not racial justice, supporters say

by Michelle Saxton
Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Defendants in capital cases could still file appeals about race discrimination claims if legislation to repeal the Racial Justice Act in North Carolina becomes law, bill supporters say.

“The protections that are in place can root out any form of discrimination, whether that’s in the charging decision, in jury selection, anything in the trial process, or any evidence that comes up post-conviction during the appeal process,” New Hanover and Pender County District Attorney Ben David said in a phone interview Monday, March 18.

North Carolina is among 33 states with the death penalty, National Conference of State Legislatures policy specialist Rich Williams said Thursday, March 14. Maryland lawmakers’ recent vote to abolish the death penalty could change that to 32.

“If it’s to be the law it should be enforced,” David, a Democrat, said. “If you want to abolish the death penalty let’s have that debate with the sincerity that it deserves.”

Death penalty is the law in North Carolina and should be upheld, said Sen. Thom Goolsby, R-New Hanover, primary sponsor of Senate Bill 306.

“Victims’ families continue to have opened wounds that pain them every day while they have no closure,” Goolsby said in a phone interview March 14.

A de facto moratorium has been in place since North Carolina’s last execution in 2006 because of different legal issues, Goolsby said. 

Goolsby emphasized the bill covers many issues, including annual updates to state lawmakers on pending post-conviction death penalty cases, flexibility to develop the most humane and constitutionally-sound method possible for lethal injection and codification of a North Carolina Supreme Court ruling against a 2007 state Medical Board position to discipline doctors for participating in executions. 

North Carolina’s lethal injection execution method is the subject of pending state and federal litigation regarding cruel and unusual punishment claims, state Department of Justice public information officer Noelle Talley said in a March 18 email.

The medical board has said it would take no disciplinary action against doctors for participation in executions.

“The North Carolina Medical Board does, however, continue to take the position that physician participation in capital punishment is a departure from the ethics of the medical profession,” the board’s website states.

Senate Bill 306, which was with a Senate committee, also would repeal the North Carolina Racial Justice Act of 2009. The act states no one shall be sentenced to death based on judgments sought or obtained on the basis of race.

David argued all but five of North Carolina’s 152 death row inmates filed appeals based on the RJA, including white defendants convicted by white jurors of killing white victims.

“Death penalty should only be carried out when there’s absolutely no question that race played absolutely no role,” David said. “The Racial Justice Act didn’t do anything to advance that … All it did was bring race into cases where it clearly didn’t exist.”

Of the 152 inmates, 79 are black, 62 are white, seven are Indian and four are of other races, according to the state Department of Public Safety. Three of the 152 defendants are women.

No other state has a Racial Justice Act like North Carolina’s, David said. Kentucky has one but the wording is different, he said.

Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks last year found evidence of racial discrimination in four capital cases tried under the RJA, noted a letter the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham released earlier this month.

The letter contained signatures from more than 70 professors and historians throughout the state against the proposed repeal, including Kimberly Cook, chairwoman of the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Sociology and Criminology Department.

“If this bill is enacted, North Carolina would become, in the eyes of the nation, the state that was presented with clear evidence of racial bias in capital sentencing and chose to look away,” the letter states. “Our lawmakers should work to eliminate the role of race in the death penalty, rather than repealing the law that uncovered the problem.”  

Opposition to the RJA should not be confused with an unwillingness to invite scrutiny of racial discrimination or disproportionate minority contact across the justice system, David said, adding that includes races of both victims and defendants.

“If you want to have a serious debate about race and justice, let’s do it,” David said. “Let’s talk about traffic tickets to murder and everything in between.”

email michelle@luminanews.com


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