Let the Racial Justice Act stand

June 13, 2013 

Sen. Thom Goolsby, a New Hanover County Republican, successfully pushed through a bill to repeal North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act. He said that the original legislation was “poorly written.”

But the truth is the law was written with impressive clarity, starting with the title. It is a law about race and justice. Those two words were not often aligned in the Old South, especially in state laws. That was what made the RJA a monument to the New South and a credit to the state that has on many fronts led the South forward.

North Carolina and Kentucky are the only two states with laws that allow for a review of racial bias in death penalty cases. And Kentucky’s law is so weak it’s rarely used. That leaves North Carolina alone as a state that actively requires that the imposition of the ultimate penalty not be tainted by racial bias.

The law, passed in 2009, quickly found its purpose. In the first four cases heard under it, Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks found evidence of bias and commuted death sentences to life in prison without parole as prescribed by the law.

Goolsby and others didn’t see those rulings as evidence that there was a racial slant to death penalty convictions. They saw them as an obstruction to executions. Thus the bill repealing the Racial Justice Act also clears the way for executions to resume in North Carolina after a hiatus of more than six years.

The lull was brought about by concerns over the drugs used and objections by the N.C. Medical Board to having physicians involved in executions. The repeal bill protects medical professionals who assist in an execution from disciplinary action.

The bill now goes to Gov. Pat McCrory. He can sign it or veto it or allow it to become law without his signature. Once it seemed this would be a hard decision for the governor. He ran as a moderate. Supposedly he would be sensitive to North Carolina’s racial past and responsive to the concerns most Americans have about the death penalty in light of numerous death row inmates being exonerated by DNA evidence.

But it’s unlikely McCrory will lose sleep over whether North Carolina should throw out reviews for bias and restart the machinery of death. During his 2012 campaign for governor, he called the RJA a “lousy bill.” Now that he has a say over the fate of inmates, McCrory might want to reflect and reconsider.

The RJA brought forth statistics that showed that blacks were more frequently skipped over for juries. There were also studies that showed that those who kill a white person are more likely to receive a death sentence.

This is not about whether the death penalty is a fair punishment. It’s about whether it’s a penalty that can be fairly imposed. That it can’t be is obvious from the numbers. There are hundreds of murders in North Carolina annually. Only a handful lead to capital cases. Fewer still result in death sentences. How can that be fair? Is one life worth less than another?

Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, noted that most of the RJA’s backers also support capital punishment but see a system that doesn’t use the penalty fairly.

“In my mind, it’s really a sad, shameful day in North Carolina to turn our backs on our commitment to eliminate racial bias from court rulings in capital cases,” he said.

The bill to repeal the Racial Justice Act succeeded because prosecutors resented having their motives questioned, and they wanted the threat of death to pressure suspects into plea bargains. They weren’t acting as ministers of justice. They were acting as administers of convictions.

The governor has the opportunity to show he’s willing to change his mind in light of the facts. This bill offers the first serious test of where he wants to lead North Carolina. Will it be forward or backward?

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