Racial Justice Act for death row inmates survives court challenge

Staff writerFebruary 10, 2011 

The fledgling Racial Justice Act survived its first challenge when a Forsyth County judge rejected contentions by prosecutors that the law was too sweeping to comply with the N.C. Constitution.

Judge William Z. Wood issued his findings today in Forsyth County Superior Court.

The Winston-Salem courthouse has been the setting for the first wave of death row inmates seeking relief from their sentences under the 18-month-old law.

The Racial Justice Act, passed narrowly along party lines in 2009, provides people convicted and accused in capital cases a legal avenue for challenging their plights using statistics and anecdotal evidence to bolster racial bias claims.

Errol Duke Moses and Carl Stephen Moseley, death row inmates since the 1990s, are using statistics and findings from a Michigan State University study to claim racial imbalance and bias played a role in their trials and sentencing in Forsyth County.

Their cases are the first of the 154 death row inmates seeking relief under the law to get to a courtroom.

"This vindicates the decision of the legislature to examine whether racial bias is tainting death sentences in this state," said Ken Rose, an attorney from the Center for Death Penalty Litigation representing Moses.

Earlier this week, prosecutors tried to pick apart the law, saying it was too sweeping to apply fairly across the state.

David Hall, an assistant district attorney in Forsyth County, argued that the law does not specify whether the courts should consider race of the inmate, race of the victim or race of the jurors when considering bias claims. He voiced outrage that Moseley, a white inmate convicted of killing white victims, was alleging racial bias played a part in his sentencing

Rose and Paul Green, one of the defense attorneys representing Moseley, voiced similar outrage that someone would claim a white inmate could not experience racial bias.

Defense lawyers contend that inmates in the racial majority could have experienced bias, too, particularly if people of color were excluded or not proportionally represented on the juries that decided their cases.

As prosecutors argued that the law needed to be more narrowly crafted so a judge could weigh particular complaints, not broad allegations of racial bias, defense attorneys shot back that sweep was what the legislature intended.

"In North Carolina, we have a societal interest in addressing a history that has been marred by racial discrimination," said Paul Green, one of Moseley's attorneys.

With Wood's decision today, lawyers expect to get to the crux of the complaints in late March, when the next hearing is set.

"I'm excited to be getting into the merits of this and that is — is the death penalty marred by discrimination?," Rose said.

Though the law survived its first test in the courts, it could be in jeopardy in the political arena.

Republicans who gained control of the state Senate and House in January have talked about either severely narrowing the reach of the act or repealing it all together.

Lawyers representing the inmates and defendants with cases already in the courts said they did not know the impact such a change would have on existing claims.

anne.blythe@newsobserver.com or 919 836-4948

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