RALEIGH — With the repeal of North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act after just four years on the books, it’s uncertain how quickly the state will resume executions or what the legacy will be for the law that proponents say was intended to rid capital punishment of racial bias.
Gov. Pat McCrory’s, a Republican, signature of approval for the repeal capped off a debate over the law’s intent and effectiveness that started even before it passed the state legislature in 2009 almost entirely along party lines.
But experts and advocates say the issue of promoting racial equality in the criminal justice system will remain salient, especially in light of a growing number of states taking steps to abolish the death penalty completely – which was always the goal at the heart of the RJA, opponents say.
As approved under then-Gov. Beverly Perdue, a Democrat, the RJA allowed convicted murderers to use statewide and local statistics to argue that racial bias in court proceedings and jury selection tainted their convictions, earning them life sentences instead of lethal injection if a judge agreed.
The law aimed to address bias in jury selection and sentencing, which has been uncovered in at least 25 states, according to the nonpartisan Death Penalty Information Center. Studies have shown that juries are far more likely to seek the death penalty for black-on-white murders and that prosecutors are more likely to strike African-Americans from juries.
Republicans, who always opposed the idea of commuting individual sentences using statistics, successfully restricted the use of capital punishment statistics to the local level with a 2012 amendment that also required other forms of evidence to overturn a death-penalty ruling.
Before Republicans weakened the law, though, a Cumberland County judge granted a life sentence to death-row inmate Marcus Robinson under the act largely on the strength of a Michigan State University study of North Carolina that found black jurors were more than twice as likely to be struck from juries than their white counterparts. Judge Greg Weeks also found other evidence of bias among prosecutors, and he ruled in favor of three more inmates under the Racial Justice Act after the 2012 rollback.
Robinson’s case was appealed by the state to the North Carolina Supreme Court, which agreed in April to review it. Tye Hunter, executive director of the Durham-based nonprofit Center for Death Penalty Litigation, said he expects the court will hear the case in late fall. The court hasn’t yet agreed to hear the three other RJA cases.
This year Republicans with supermajorities in both chambers of the General Assembly mounted a full repeal. They’ve argued that the law allowed most of the 153 death-row inmates to challenge their sentences regardless of their race, creating a logjam that amounts to a de-facto moratorium on executions.
Hunter said he doesn’t expect executions to begin in the near future because of existing appeals and all-but-certain challenges among inmates that their due process rights were violated with the repeal of an act they used to contest their sentences.
Rep. Paul Stam, a Republican from Apex and an attorney, said due-process violations are bogus because the inmates were convicted before the law existed. He said he would give the state many months, not years, before executions resume because an appeal about the legality of lethal injections is expected to be resolved soon.
The state Supreme Court case was once considered a defining test for the Racial Justice Act with the potential for broader implications. Even with the repeal of the act, that review could send a signal that either bolsters the case RJA advocates tried to press for four years or prop up the status quo, said Bryan Stevenson, the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative and an expert on racial inequality in the criminal justice system.
“We’ll see if that becomes a legacy of this law and litigation or if people become more comfortable engaging in race-conscious decision-making because they can do it with impunity,” he said.
Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Center, noted that national efforts to create legislation along the lines of the Racial Justice Act and in other states haven’t fared well, but at the same time six states have abolished the death penalty since 2007 in large part because of the costs of administering capital punishment and questions of fairness.
“The next solution might be: Is the death penalty incompatible with our fairness to justice and equality?” he said. “We don’t seem to be able to fix it, but yet we know the problem persists.”
States have taken a skeptical view toward considering statistics in capital cases since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1987 that studies showing racial disparities in sentencing couldn’t be used to overturn a death penalty conviction alone, said John Donohue, a Stanford University legal scholar who specializes in criminal justice. Donohue prepared statistical analysis for a recent Connecticut Supreme Court effort to commute the sentences of 11 inmates who remain on death row after the state abolished the death penalty.
Connecticut, like other states, decided the millions of dollars and decades spent pursuing capital punishment wasn’t worth it, Donohue said. There’s a recognition that money could be spent better elsewhere, he said.
“I think the evidence is sort of overwhelming that the way to stop murder is swift and certain punishment, and Connecticut is only solving about half their murders,” Donohue said.
But Dieter noted that the states that have abolished the death penalty in recent years were more politically receptive or had strong minority voices in state government. Stam noted that public opinion in North Carolina sides with capital punishment.
“I don’t see that changing in the next several years,” Stam said.