N.C. Republicans' bill would weaken Racial Justice Act

Staff WriterApril 7, 2011 

— Four state Republicans propose to alter the Racial Justice Act so that anyone seeking relief under the law would have to show that prosecutors intentionally used race as a discriminatory factor in seeking the death penalty or selecting the jury to hear the case.

The amendment, proposed this week in the state House, comes as more than 150 death row inmates are seeking relief from their sentences under the 2-year-old law.

North Carolina is one of two states to offer inmates and defendants a chance to challenge their sentences or cases using statistics.

The Racial Justice Act, which passed narrowly along party lines in August 2009, allows death row inmates and defendants in death penalty cases to challenge prosecutions on grounds of bias. It also allows judges to consider statistics and anecdotal trends of racial disparities in death sentences, as well as testimony, to change a death sentence to life in prison without parole. A judge also could consider the same kind of information to keep prosecutors from seeking capital punishment at the outset of a case.

Law praised, slammed

Death penalty critics lauded the act as a step toward a more just justice system.

Prosecutors, law enforcement organizations and victims' rights groups were critical of the law, saying bias claims would be time-consuming and costly.

The proposed amendment, titled "No Discriminatory Purpose in Death Penalty," was sponsored by Republican Reps. Justin Burr, a bail bondsman from Albemarle; Sarah Stevens, a lawyer from Mount Airy; Dan Ingle, a retired police chief from Burlington; and Paul Stam, a lawyer from Apex.

The act "was designed to put a semi-permanent moratorium on the death penalty by clogging the courts and it's accomplished that," Stam said. "It was probably the sloppiest piece of legislation I've ever seen and it's costing tens of millions of dollars a year."

But supporters of the act dispute such claims. They have pushed for a streamlined process so many of the weightier legal issues could be ruled on early and set out a foundation for any claims to follow.

Under the Racial Justice Act, inmates could have death sentences changed to life-terms without possibility of parole if they prove racial bias played a part in their prosecution or sentencing.

The proposed amendment would require the courts to find that prosecutors acted "with discriminatory purpose" in seeking the death penalty or selecting the jury.

It would also require the courts to find that jurors acted "with discriminatory purpose" in determining guilt or innocence.

'Destroy a promise'

"Supporters of this bill are calling it a reform," Tye Hunter, executive director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, said in a prepared statement. "In truth, it is an attempt to destroy a promise made to the citizens of North Carolina that we would examine whether racial bias plays a role in our criminal justice system. ... Racial bias has, in fact, been revealed, and now they want to ignore the truth."

In bias claims filed last year by nearly all of North Carolina's death row inmates, lawyers cite findings from a study by Catherine Grosso and Barbara O'Brien, professors at the Michigan State University College of Law.

The law professors' study of 5,800 cases eligible for the death penalty from 1990 through 2009 shows that more than 40 percent of the defendants on North Carolina's death row were sentenced to death by a jury that was either all white or included only one person of color.

The researchers also found that in selecting juries, prosecutors statewide struck qualified blacks from the jury pool at more than twice the rate at which they struck whites.

"Now that we have seen this evidence, we can no longer pretend that our courts are color blind," Hunter said.

Prosecutors contend that they do not consider race of defendants and victims when deciding to pursue capital punishment. They say they weigh factors such as the severity of a crime and whether a victim's family supports or opposes the death penalty.

Staff writer Alan M. Wolf contributed to this report.

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

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