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N.C. law a new tool for capital convicts
Racial Justice Act addresses ethnic dispartity in sentencing
 
Published Tuesday, August 11, 2009 6:15 pm
by Herbert L. White

North Carolina now allows challenges to the death penalty based on race.

PHOTO/N.C. GOVERNOR'S OFFICE
N.C. Gov. Bev Perdue (center) signs the Racial Justice Act Tuesday in Raleigh. The law allows challenges to implementation of the death penalty based on race.

Gov. Bev Purdue signed the N.C. Racial Justice Act Tuesday, a victory for supporters who contend its passage is the first step in closing racial disparities in how capital punishment is applied, especially in the South where the number of condemned inmates tends to be higher. The law allows defendants to use statistical data to argue racial bias.

“I have always been a supporter of death penalty, but I have always believed it must be carried out fairly,” Perdue at the signing. “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.”


Kentucky is the only other state with such a law that allows death penalty challenges based on ethnicity.


The state Senate passed the bill last week and the House approved it last month. The Senate bill was sponsored by Sen. Floyd McKissik (D-Durham) and in the House by Reps. Larry Womble (D-Forsyth), Earline Parmon (D-Forsyth), Paul Luebke (D-Durham) and  Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford).


“This is a very auspicious and also historic occasion for the state of North Carolina.  This is about justice for our state, and North Carolina is leading the nation in this particular area,” Womble said. “I want to thank all of the sponsors, supporters and the people of North Carolina.  We want the world to know that we will be fair and objective in this area.”


Studies have concluded that ethnic minorities – especially blacks – and the poor are more likely to be sentenced to death than whites. North Carolina has 163 inmates on death row, including 98 African Americans. Capital punishment opponents point to a 2001 study by researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill that found that the odds of a murder defendant condemned to death in North Carolina increase if the victim is white. 

“This is a great spiritual victory for North Carolina, the South, and our whole country,” said Stephen Dear, executive director of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty. “We have passed through the horrors of Jim Crow, through the racial politics of (former U.S. senator) Jesse Helms, and now we have come to acknowledge that racial bias infects our courts over one of the greatest powers citizens give to government, the power to take human life.”


About 700 N.C. clergy lobbied for passage of the Racial Justice Act, and 36 cities and counties passed resolutions calling the death penalty racially biased.


Under the bill, death row inmates and future capital case defendants could use statistics from death-penalty cases to show racial disparities in how death sentences are applied. If a judge finds the application is racially biased, the death sentence can be converted to life in prison without parole. District attorneys opposed the bill, contending race is rarely used to determine how capital punishment is meted out.


“The passage of the Racial Justice Act is a major step not only in North Carolina but potentially in the South for dealing with the continuing legacy of systemic racism in the application of the death penalty,” N.C. NAACP President Rev. William Barber said.


“Of course, despite this reform the death penalty system will still be subject to human error and will still be the morally unacceptable and error-prone system it cannot help but be,” Dear said. “The only way to overcome the death penalty’s deep flaws is to repeal it and use the money that would be saved to provide real help for survivors of murder victims.” 


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