Race and the Death Penalty in North Carolina

Race and crime are linked together frequently. Over 40,000 people are in North Carolina prisons. Of that number, over 57 percent are black.

This discrepancy also is present when looking at death row statistics. North Carolina is one of 35 states that currently have the death penalty, even though the state has not executed a prisoner since August 2006. Of the 159 inmates on death row, 87 are black. Statewide, blacks represent only 22 percent of the North Carolina population, according to U.S. Census statistics. With the numbers of blacks on death row being so disproportionate, the state has looked for ways to address the issue.

New laws have been created, specifically the Racial Justice Act, but the effects of this law are still unknown. The state is also in the middle of a controversy with its own crime lab, as an audit has determined over 220 cases in which there were various problems with blood evidence. Because of these issues, renewed concerns are being voiced about the fairness of death penalty sentences.

A recent study by Michigan State University examined North Carolina's death penalty statistics in greater detail. If there was a white victim in the case, offenders were 2.6 times more likely to be sentenced to death, no matter what the circumstances of the case entailed. The racial make-up of juries was also examined. Black jurors were twice as likely to be excluded from capital murder juries as their white counterparts. Of the 159 death row inmates, 31 had all-white juries, while 38 had juries which included only one minority.

The Racial Justice Act

This study, and several like it, led to the creation of the Racial Justice Act. The Racial Justice Act was signed into law in August of 2009. Only one other state (Kentucky) has passed a similar act. The RJA allows prisoners on death row to challenge their sentence if they believe it was the result of racial bias, and also permits those being tried for capital murder to introduce evidence of racial bias in sentencing. If the inmate can show statistics that display a pattern of bias, the judge hearing the appeal may change the sentence to life without parole. Inmates had until this past August to challenge their sentences, and 152 of the state's 159 death row prisoners have filed an appeal under the act.

The state has appointed former prosecutors to contest these appeals. At this time, it is still uncertain on how the cases will be handled. If cases are tried together, the unique facts of each case could find themselves of lesser importance. If cases are handled separately, it could cost the state tens of millions of dollars it does not have to try each one. Prosecutors and law enforcement agencies feel that the rule minimizes the facts of each case and makes it more difficult to obtain a death sentence.

Can Prosecutors Rely on SBI Evidence?

While the 152 appeals are making their way through the system, death penalty opponents also are concerned with the behavior of the State Bureau of Investigation. A recent audit of the SBI crime lab focused on bloodstain analysis. The report concluded that there were over 220 instances of mishandled evidence from 1987 to 2003. The evidence may not have been used at trial, but 190 of these cases resulted in charges for the accused. The key questions raised by the audit have focused on the role of the lab and the policies used to test evidence.

The SBI lab, under statute, is designed to offer assistance to aid in the prosecution of criminals. This is potentially problematic for those accused of a crime because the lab is not truly neutral, but part of the prosecution team. The audit showed several instances where evidence that was not favorable to the prosecution's case was simply left out of reports or ignored. While the report was focused on bloodstain evidence, critics are questioning the lab's ballistics and DNA testing procedures to determine the extent of the problem.

In addition to the misuse or concealing of evidence, the lab is also under fire for simply not having any policies that deal with the testing of blood evidence. Technicians were permitted to run any tests they wished to try to strengthen the prosecution's case. After questions arose about the handling of evidence in a 2009 capital murder trial, the lab finally implemented procedures for testing blood evidence. Both prosecution and defense attorneys have called for a halt to the death penalty, because evidence received from the lab is not trustworthy.

Future of the Death Penalty

With so many potential problems in the way death penalty cases are handled, there has been a renewed emphasis on abolishing the penalty in North Carolina. Support for the death penalty within the state has waned, and it has become rare for someone to receive a death sentence. Commuting the sentences of those currently on death row could save the state time and money.

With so much uncertainty regarding the death penalty, it is on hold until all of these issues are examined in greater detail. However, even if the RJA cases are successful, larger issues remain. Disproportionate numbers of blacks are in North Carolina prisons. The state may need to examine the investigation practices of law enforcement and the actions of judges and juries to try to find a comprehensive solution to the problem.

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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.