Tuesday, August 10 was the last day for inmates to appeal their death sentences under North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act (RJA). The law allows murder defendants to present evidence demonstrating that racial bias played a role in their conviction or denial of their appeals.
The deadline comes on the heels of the release of two studies that highlighted the racial disparities in North Carolina’s capital cases.
In the study performed by the Michigan State University College of Law, researchers examined 5,800 North Carolina cases from 1990 to 2009; all of the cases they looked at were eligible for the death penalty. The data showed that:
- Defendants were 2.6 times more likely to be given the death penalty if at least one of the victims was white.
- More than 40 percent of inmates on death row were sent there by juries that were either all-white or that included only one person of color.
- During jury selection, prosecutors statewide struck qualified blacks from their juries more than twice as often as whites.
The second study, by the University of Colorado at Boulder, looked at capital cases from 1980 to 2007. In those cases, a death sentence was 2.96 percent more likely if the victim was white.
Prosecutors counter that safeguards are in place to prevent bias from playing a role in death penalty cases. They look primarily at the conduct of the defendant, weighing each case on an individual basis before they seek the death penalty. One prosecutor added that, in his district, such decisions are made by a panel of 3 prosecutors. All of the prosecutors in that office are white.
Neither study offered an explanation for the results, and criminal defense attorneys suggest that the numbers speak for themselves: Racial disparity exists, and it doesn’t matter if it’s conscious or unconscious.
Under the RJA, a defense attorney does not have to show that the prosecutor purposely sought the death penalty because a white victim was involved. All that attorney has to show is that race played a role in the conviction or appeal, and the studies’ results can be used as evidence to back up the argument.
A successful appeal under the RJA will reduce the defendant’s sentence from death to life in prison without possibility of parole.
North Carolina is only the second state — Kentucky was the first — to pass a law like the RJA.
Star News Online “Racial Disparity Remains Wide in Death Sentences” 8/8/10
The Huffington Post “Race Factor in Death Sentences” 8/10/10