North Carolina Law Strives to Take Race Out of Death Penalty Sentencing

The Racial Justice Act

Last year, North Carolina became only the second state in the country to pass a law recognizing that racial biases may come into play in death penalty cases and allowing those sentenced to death to contest their sentences on racial bias grounds.

Under the historic and controversial Racial Justice Act, North Carolina death row inmates can petition the court to hold a hearing to review their death penalty sentences if they can prove that race was a substantial factor in decisions to seek or impose the death penalty in the county, prosecutorial district, judicial division or the state at the time of the defendant's sentence.

The Racial Justice Act also applies to those who are facing death penalty sentences. In these cases, the criminal defendant can request a pre-trial hearing to try to prove that racial bias is a substantial factor in the state seeking the death penalty against him or her.

If the petitioner can successfully show that racial bias was a substantial factor in the prosecutor seeking the death penalty or the court imposing capital punishment, then the court must vacate the sentence and replace it with a sentence of life without parole.

The Act specifies the types of evidence that can be used to prove racial bias was a substantial factor in the death sentence, which includes statistical evidence and sworn statements from police officers, attorneys, prosecutors, jurors and other members of the criminal justice system that at least one of the following applies to their case:

  • The death penalty was sought and/or imposed significantly more frequently against people of one race over another
  • The death penalty was sought and/or imposed significantly more frequently as a punishment for capital offenses against people of one race than as punishment for capital offenses against those of another race
  • Race was a significant factor in decisions to exercise peremptory challengers during juror selection

Use of Statistical Evidence Draws Fire

One of the most controversial sections of the Racial Justice Act is the provision allowing death row inmates and criminal defendants to challenge the death penalty based on statistical evidence of racial bias. State prosecutors have cried foul over this part of the Act and argued that statistics can be manipulated to make racial bias appear to exist where it does not.

Two recent statistical studies in particular have been cited as evidence of racial bias by several of the 152 North Carolina death row inmates currently challenging their sentences under the Act.

One study conducted by Michigan State University College of Law found that when the victim was white, criminal defendants in North Carolina have nearly a three times greater chance of getting the death penalty, regardless of the defendant's race. The Michigan State study looked at more than 1500 cases between 1990 and 2009.

A second study took a closer look at the cases of the 159 inmates currently on death row in North Carolina and found that the prosecutors in these cases had removed blacks from the jury pool at more than twice the rate of any other race. Of the 159 death row inmates, 31 of them were sentenced by all white juries.

Challenge to Get Law Passed

Getting the Racial Justice Act passed was no easy feat in North Carolina. Republican members of the state legislature by and large were against the Act, with some commenting that it only allowed criminal defendants to postpone their sentences. State prosecutors also rallied against the law. The Director of the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys said she was "very confident" that race had not played a role in imposing the death penalty in the state.

Regardless of the staunch opposition to the Act, it was signed into law by Governor Bev Purdue on August 10, 2009. After signing the historic legislation, the Governor said in a news release, "I have always been a supporter of the death penalty, but I have always believed it must be carried out fairly. The Racial Justice Act ensures that when North Carolina hands down our state's harshest punishment to our most heinous criminals - the decision is based on the facts and the law, not racial prejudice."

The passage of the Racial Justice Act is just one of the more recent actions taken against the death penalty in North Carolina. Execution of death row inmates has been on hold the last three years, pending the outcome of a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the death penalty and alleging that death by lethal injection constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. There also has been a move in the state to prohibit physicians from participating in carrying out the death penalty.

Contact an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney

For more information on challenging a death penalty sentence under the Racial Justice Act, contact a criminal defense attorney today. While the deadline for those already sentenced to the death penalty to challenge their sentences under the Act passed on August 10, those who are currently facing charges for a capital offense still can challenge the death penalty under the Act.

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North Carolina vs. M.W.
Charge: Charge: Robbery with A Dangerous Weapon (4 Counts), First Degree Burglary, Conspiracy to Commit Robbery with A Dangerous Weapon
Facing: 12 - 17 years in prison
Result: Dismissed

An incarcerated defendant accused our client of participating in the robbery of a group of youth at a party. We were able to raise doubt as to the credibility of this individual. In the end, the prosecutor dismissed these charges, citing a lack of evidence.