We’re wrapping up our discussion of a bill that’s sitting in a North Carolina House of Representatives committee, awaiting discussion and what’s sure to be a lively debate. The bill, HB 615, would “reform” the Racial Justice Act by forcing inmates sitting on death row to prove that their sentence was decided with a discriminatory purpose.
Proponents of the bill have two main arguments that they pursue in court and emphasize to the public and the press.
In February, prosecutors argued to the first judge to hear RJA appeals that they were being penalized for the acts of other prosecutors in other jurisdictions. The Act is clearly unconstitutional, they said. The judge didn’t agree.
They next argued that the RJA conflicts with a U.S. Supreme Court decision, McCleskey v. Kemp (481 U.S. 279 (1987)). That was a Georgia case, involving a black man, McCleskey, convicted of killing a white man. McCleskey argued that his death sentence should be set aside because it was racially biased. The court agreed that there were racial disparities with regard to the death penalty. However, those disparities weren’t enough for the court; the mere fact that the death penalty was meted out disproportionately to blacks was insufficient to prove McCleskey’s argument. The court ruled against him, 5-4.
In citing this case, North Carolina prosecutors say the decision means inmates must prove racial discrimination was a factor in his individual case. House Bill 615 would properly align state law with federal law, proponents claim.
That first judge to hear RJA appeals said the Act is constitutional, though. Still, that’s one judge — the ruling may be appealed, and other courts may be asked to rule on the same argument.
In the meantime, 158 people sit on death row, wondering who will decide their fate — the courts or the legislature?
Source: NBC17.com, “State Republicans file bill to repeal the Racial Justice Act,” Michael Hewlett, updated 04/06/11