Ford: Murder trials minus race

June 17, 2012 

It strains the language almost to the breaking point to describe Jason Williford as lucky to be facing life in prison with no hope that he’ll ever get out.

Considering the crime Williford admitted to, he was going to leave prison in a casket one way or the other, as his lawyer put it. The jury could have decided that his death would be inflicted – just as he inflicted death on poor Kathy Taft, although his would not have been so random and violent – and that his ride in the hearse would likely take place in a matter of years rather than decades.

But that Wake County jury, in what can be described only as an act of humanity, sentenced Williford to spend his life henceforth in the stern clutches of North Carolina’s correctional system.

What if a murder conviction meant a much higher chance of being executed, and sooner rather than later? Even if the method were the relatively (note, relatively) benign lethal injection, might the prospect of mounting that gurney to oblivion give someone like Jason Williford sufficient pause to keep him from killing?

Death penalty supporters often take it as an article of faith that the prospect of a death sentence deters murder and thus saves lives.

That faith was evident in remarks from Rep. Paul Stam, the Republican lawyer from Apex who is majority leader in the state House.

Stam last week helped push through changes to water down – or gut, as critics charge – the 2009 Racial Justice Act, which allows death sentences to be challenged on the basis of statistical evidence of racial bias.

“This action is necessary to end the moratorium on the death penalty,” said a release from Stam’s office, referring to the informal suspension of executions that has been in effect since 2006 because of various legal tangles.

“The death penalty acts as a deterrent only if it is used. The death penalty will obviously not deter if the state only pretends to have a death penalty and never carries out the sentence.”

That racial bias has sometimes influenced how murder would be punished in North Carolina is hard to dispute. A Superior Court judge in Fayetteville, granting the first instance of relief under the Racial Justice Act, said the evidence showed bias was pervasive.

But Stam and his allies oppose the act as gumming up the works by inviting condemned inmates to challenge their sentences. And in fact, nearly all of the inmates on death row have done so.

A successful claim means that a death sentence is converted to life in prison without parole. Yes, such a person has all the luck.

Perhaps the most definitive look at the deterrence issue was taken by the National Research Council – which said in an April report that the evidence as to whether capital punishment affects murder rates one way or the other was so mixed and flawed that no conclusions could be drawn.

Since 1976, the council said, about 15 percent of inmates sentenced to death in this country actually have been executed. Do prospective killers think about such things, calculating the risks? But even if there is a deterrent effect, there are good reasons why the death penalty should be used cautiously, if at all.

Trials can be skewed as evidence helpful to the defendant is improperly withheld. Eyewitness identifications can be mistaken.

The exoneration of people found guilty of murder shows the danger of horrible, irreversible mistakes – the more executions, the greater the chance that an innocent person will die. If a harsher standard is applied to African-Americans accused of or convicted of killing whites, they are more vulnerable when the system messes up.

That’s the kind of bias the Racial Justice Act is aimed at rooting out. But the law’s opponents are on the verge of eliminating a key provision.

Now, statistics can be sufficient to show bias and have a death sentence set aside. The rewrite allows consideration of statistical evidence from the county or district where the case was tried, but a claim can’t succeed on that basis alone. There must be other evidence particular to the case.

Black legislators and civil rights advocates protest that the changes mean North Carolina once again will countenance systemic racial discrimination in its courts, in situations when the stakes are highest.

Cold-blooded murderers aren’t to be coddled. But it should be imperative that the most serious charges and punishments are pursued only with scrupulous fairness. There’s no excuse for purging qualified potential jurors just because they happen to be black, or for coming down harder on black people whose victims are white than on white killers of other whites.

Did Jason Williford, the white stranger who smashed his white victim in the head with a rock and raped her in the bed where she’d been resting, benefit from that kind of bias in reverse? Maybe he was lucky. Or maybe that’s just the way things work.

Editorial page editor Steve Ford can be reached at 919-829-4512 or at steve.ford@newsobserver.com.

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