Public defenders are appealing to state senators to give North Carolina's Racial Justice Act a chance.
LeAnn Melton, a public defender in Buncombe County, sent a letter on behalf of the Public Defenders Association to Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger.
The letter comes a week after the president of the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys asked the Senate to repeal the act, a 2-year-old law that gives death row inmates a new avenue for challenging their sentences on grounds of racial bias.
The law, the public defenders say, gives the courts, the legislature and citizens an opportunity to examine patterns of racial bias. Whereas other appeals processes give North Carolina death row inmates an opportunity to have racial bias complaints heard, those procedures do not allow judges to weigh statistics during those hearings.
The Racial Justice Act, one of only two such laws in the nation, gives judges that ability. A recent Michigan State University law school study found that out of 159 death row inmates, 40 percent were sentenced by juries with one or no person of color.
They also found that across North Carolina, qualified African-Americans were more than twice as likely to be dismissed from capital juries by the prosecution than similarly situated whites.
"These disturbing conclusions need to be evaluated in court," Melton said in the letter. "All North Carolinians have an interest in seeing to it that our system of justice is not tainted by racial bias."
The public defenders complained about inaccurate information in a letter from Susan Doyle, the Johnston County district attorney who wrote for the Conference of District Attorneys.
Prosecutors contended that the Racial Justice Act is essentially an effort to overturn the death penalty.
The public defenders pointed out that several dozen capital defendants have been brought to trial since the adoption of the Racial Justice Act, a law that has not been fully tested in the courts, and death sentences issued.
In 2008, before the law, 13 capital defendants went to trial in North Carolina, and one was sentenced to death. In 2009, there were nine capital trials and two death sentences. Last year, there were 13 capital trials and four new death sentences. So far this year, prosecutors have brought 14 capital defendants to trial, and two people have been sentenced to death
"It is clear that the death penalty is alive and well in North Carolina," Melton said in the letter.
"Public defenders in North Carolina are committed to ensuring justice for all persons charged with serious crimes, regardless of indigency and regardless of race," the letter said. "In my experience, what happens in capital cases often has a 'trickle-down effect' on the rest of the criminal justice system. ... The RJA can only strengthen the overall fairness of our criminal justice system."