The Racial Justice Act, saved from repeal by Gov. Bev Perdue last December, faces its first real-life test this week. The law allows death row inmates to use statistics to prove that racial bias was a significant factor at trial, in sentencing or in denial of an appeal. If the petitioner succeeds, the sentence is changed to life in prison without possibility of parole.
All eyes are on the hearing; prosecutors and defense attorneys — and judges — will use this case as a bellwether for the process. Critics have complained that the number and length of the hearings will overburden the courts. At the time of the filing deadline in August 2010, all but seven of the 159 death row inmates had filed petitions under the RJA. Another 50 defendants awaiting trial also filed.
The inmate in this case was convicted of murder in 1994. He is black; the victim was a white teenager.
He now claims that race was a factor in both the prosecution’s selection of the jury and the prosecution’s decision to seek the death penalty. The inmate also believes that the victim’s race was a factor in the jury’s decision to sentence him to death.
A former prosecutor testified earlier this week that race could have been an unconscious factor in the case. However, he said, any influence race may have had was not significant. The inmate claims the prosecution rejected potential jurors who were black because of their race. The witness said he had rejected five black potential jurors but accepted a different five.
The hearing will probably last another week.
Source: News & Observer, “N.C. judge testifies in racial justice case,” Feb. 7, 2012