No subtlety in repeal of the Racial Justice Act

March 27, 2013 

The gloves are off now. In the last legislative session, opponents of the Racial Justice Act succeeded in increasing the burden of proof on those sentenced to death if they wanted to appeal their sentences on the basis of racial bias. Now, those opponents simply want to gut the law and get back to the business of executing people in North Carolina.

State Sen. Thom Goolsby of Wilmington is pushing an end to the Racial Justice Act along with other more technical changes in the law to allow resumption of the death penalty in North Carolina. There have been no executions since 2006 because of different legal appeals.

The world has not ended in that time. Incidents of capital murder have not skyrocketed (the death penalty as a deterrent has long been under question) and death row hasn’t emptied. In the 18 states that do not have a death penalty, there is no indication that without that penalty, murderers go on sprees.

But Goolsby believes the lapse in executions has offended families of murder victims in the state who haven’t received their just due: the execution of those convicted of the murders of their loved ones.

Goolsby got shamelessly graphic in making his argument for resumption of executions: “We have a number of families that continue to suffer. Their dead continue to rot in their graves, and they are waiting for justice in this state.” That’s called pulling out all the stops. But it’s not responsible debate.

A big problem

The families of victims have and deserve the sympathy of all. Their feelings are understandable and yes, might be shared by others who oppose the death penalty if their own relatives were involved.

However, putting aside the philosophical arguments about the moral rightness or wrongness of state-sponsored murder, there is a lingering, and huge, problem with the death penalty. It is the one form of punishment that cannot be in some way corrected. A conviction of the wrong person resulting in a prison sentence can at least by answered with rules requiring financial payment by the state. But how, if the wrong person is executed, does the state compensate that person and his or her family? How does it right that wrong?

And mistakes can happen. Consider a case recently examined by The News & Observer, that of Joseph Sledge, accused of 1976 murders in Bladen County. Sledge has spent half his life in prison for murders he says he didn’t commit. Now, a witness against him has recanted, saying he was pressured to give Sledge up by investigators. DNA evidence has not turned up evidence against Sledge, and in fact seems to support his claim.

Tough luck?

Whether Sledge will go free remains to be seen, but he certainly seems to be building a case for reasonable doubt.

So what if Joseph Sledge has been sentenced to death and executed? Would death penalty proponents simply say, oh, well, we might kill somebody by mistake once in a while, but that’s the price of having a death penalty.

Indeed, that likely would be the price of a death penalty, because the justice system is far from perfect. Convictions on different crimes have been overturned in North Carolina. Cases were called into question following News & Observer reports of problems with the SBI crime laboratory, some of them doubtless still under investigation.

If we know that the system isn’t perfect, then why would district attorneys, of all people, become advocates for restoring the death penalty? They know, after all, that death penalty cases are tremendously expensive, often become wrenching for the families of victims as well as families of the accused. And they know, whether they say so or not, that the wrong person can be convicted.

If the courts mirror public opinion, views may be shifting. There were 315 death sentences in the United States in 1996, and, in 2011, 78.

In North Carolina last year, no death sentences were issued for the first time since 1977.

Rather than put the death penalty on a fast track to resume, lawmakers should be stopping it in its tracks, period.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service