Racial Justice Act in General Assembly’s Crosshairs – Again

in Criminal Defense, on

As predicted, the North Carolina House of Representatives is considering a proposal that would radically alter the Racial Justice Act. As we have discussed, the act allows inmates and defendants sentenced to death to use statistics to prove that their trials were tainted by racial bias. If the court is persuaded, the offender’s sentence is reduced to life in prison without possibility of parole. The law does not allow a court to reduce the charges or to exonerate the offender.

Opponents say the bill would “gut” the act, and they chastise the bill’s advocates for eroding the progress the state has made in addressing bias in the justice system. Proponents counter with the same argument they used last year: The act is a back-door approach to repealing the death penalty.

The use of statistics continues to be the primary bone of contention among lawmakers. Under this proposal, offenders would have to supplement the statistical evidence with further proof of bias, and they would have to limit the data to the county or prosecutorial district in which they were sentenced. The current law allows offenders to use statewide statistics without regard to the location of sentencing.

The bill would also impose a timeframe for proving bias, something the current law does not address. Offenders would be able to use data from two years before the crime to two years following sentencing. In addition, the bill would require an offender whose claim of bias is successful to waive the right to object to the alternative sentence. The concern is that offenders were sentenced before life without parole was an option.

Finally, the bill would make clear that filing a claim under the RJA would not extinguish the offender’s right to appeal his conviction on the grounds he is innocent.

A vote by the full House has not been scheduled.

Source: News & Observer, “House committee approves new Racial Justice Act bill,” Craig Jarvis, June 6, 2012