The North Carolina Supreme Court this month took the admirable step of granting review of three important cases that raise issues under the Racial Justice Act, or RJA.
I sponsored this path-breaking piece of legislation enacted in 2009. The RJA was only the second law of its kind in the nation and it was the first to address race discrimination in jury selection. The RJA established that no person in North Carolina could be capitally-prosecuted or executed if racial bias was a significant factor in the case. The law was sorely needed in the wake of several exonerations of African-Americans wrongfully convicted and even sentenced to death by all-white or nearly all-white juries. In addition, years of statistical studies had established that racial bias did indeed play a role in capital cases, but there was no avenue under existing law to bring that problem to the courts for review.
In 2012, the cases now before the state Supreme Court were heard in the trial court in Cumberland County. These were the first cases in the state to go forward under the RJA. The defendants presented extensive evidence that their death sentences had been influenced by racial bias. Statistical studies revealed a widespread problem — existing across the state and in the Cumberland cases themselves — of prosecutors regularly excluding persons of color from serving on juries. There were also notes made by prosecutors denigrating black jurors, calling them winos and thugs. And there were training programs designed to teach prosecutors how to rely on race when selecting juries without getting caught. Faced with this overwhelming evidence, the trial judge overturned the defendants’ death sentences and re-sentenced them to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, as the RJA required.
Despite this, the GOP-controlled legislature has set about trying to hide the problem of race-based death sentences that the RJA had uncovered. The legislature passed a law repealing the RJA, which in turn led to the dismissal of the Cumberland County defendants’ cases, and they were sent back to death row.
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Several federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have already found that the same GOP legislature has improperly used race to gain electoral advantage in voting laws, by discriminating against voters of color. So it is not surprising that the same legislature would try to bury the RJA evidence that capital prosecutions across the state have been tainted by similar racial bias.
The North Carolina Supreme Court has now wisely agreed to hear the Cumberland County cases. The court will decide whether the GOP legislature’s attempt to repeal, and effectively hide, the RJA evidence of race discrimination violates constitutional law.
Notwithstanding our legislature’s more recent history, the state Supreme Court’s decision to review these cases is in keeping with North Carolina’s tradition of addressing problems of racial inequity with good sense and moderation. As a result of a lawsuit filed by my father, he became the first black student to integrate a public university in this state when he enrolled in the law school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the early 1950s. He was represented by Attorney Thurgood Marshall in that case.
In the 1950s, Greensboro, for example, was the first city in the South to follow the Supreme Court’s school desegregation orders. In the 1960s, Charlotte was one of the first major southern cities to voluntarily drop discrimination in public accommodations.
For more recent examples of leadership that has not shied from addressing difficult racial issues, we need look no further than North Carolina’s federal district judges. These jurists have not hesitated to act on evidence that the legislature illegally used race as a factor when drawing voting districts and enacting voter identification laws.
Likewise, I have every confidence in our state Supreme Court, that its justices will review with great care and concern the Racial Justice Act cases that are before them. The North Carolina Supreme Court once showed courage when it declared in a 1987 decision that it would not tolerate the corruption of our state’s juries by racism and similar forms of irrational prejudice. I am optimistic that our current court can show such courage again, for nowhere is intolerance of racial bias more important than in capital cases where human life is on the line.
State Sen. Floyd B. McKissick, Jr., a Durham Democrat, was one of the primary legislative sponsors of the Racial Justice Act.