Repeal of Racial Justice Act not expected to restart executions in NC

ablythe@newsobserver.comJune 21, 2013 

— Gov. Pat McCrory’s decision to sign the repeal of the Racial Justice Act ends a heated four-year political debate over the landmark legislation.

But both supporters and opponents of the law seem to agree on one thing: The signing won’t lead to the immediate resumption of executions in North Carolina.

“The big thing for my clients is I want them to know there’s not going to be executions anytime soon,” said Ken Rose, a lawyer at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation.

Each of the 153 inmates on the state’s death row have claims in a lawsuit that alleges lethal injections administered by the state were cruel and unusual punishment. That case is on appeal, and it could be well into next year before there’s any movement in the courts.

All but a few of the inmates filed for relief in 2010 under the Racial Justice Act, the version adopted in 2009. Four of those claims have been heard at the Superior Court level.

In the first case, Judge Gregory Weeks of Cumberland County commuted the sentence of Marcus Robinson to life in prison without the possibility of parole after finding that a “wealth of evidence” presented in his case showed “the persistent, pervasive, and distorting role of race in jury selection throughout North Carolina.”

“The evidence, largely unrebutted by the state,” Weeks said, required “relief in his case and should serve as a clear signal of the need for reform in capital jury selection proceedings in the future.”

The statistical evidence presented in the Robinson case came largely from a comprehensive study of North Carolina capital cases done by researchers from Michigan State University.

The study’s findings included that state prosecutors in North Carolina were significantly more likely to strike potential jurors who were African-American.

In a related study, the researchers found that defendants are much more likely to be sentenced to death if the victim is white than if the victim is black.

Since the Robinson decision, the death sentences of three more inmates were converted to life in prison without parole after similar findings of racial bias playing a role in their cases.

“The Racial Justice Act brought to light undeniable proof that North Carolina’s death penalty system is plagued by racial bias,” Sarah Preston, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, said in a statement after the repeal. “By repealing this law barely four years into its existence, North Carolina’s leadership has willfully turned its back on widespread evidence of systemic racial bias that needs to be addressed – not ignored.

“Even those who support the death penalty should agree that capital sentences must be handed down impartially and without bias. Sadly, North Carolina’s lawmakers have just undone the best tool our state had to achieve that goal.”

Prosecutors from across the state contended that race did not factor into their jury selection or decisions to pursue capital punishment. They further argued that the Racial Justice Act was a thinly veiled attempt to end the death penalty in North Carolina.

No executions since 2006

Though capital punishment is still legal in North Carolina, there has not been an inmate executed since 2006.

That was when several legal challenges were mounted by inmates and doctors who took part in the executions.

In lawsuits, prisoners and their advocates contend that lethal injections administered by the state are cruel and unusual punishment.

Though the repeal of the Racial Justice Act halts new claims and challenges, many lawyers argue that people who committed crimes before that repeal could argue that any claims they might file are covered under the 2009 version of the law or the amended version from last year.

“This could be tied up in the courts for years,” Rose said.

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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