North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act has done for one inmate just what it was designed to do: A 38-year-old African American inmate is no longer sentenced to death. Because a judge ruled that racial bias played a role in the trial and sentencing of the man, his sentence has been reduced to life in prison without possibility of parole. Almost 20 years ago, a jury convicted him and his accomplice of killing a white teenager.
The Cumberland County judge who heard the Racial Justice Act claim focused his findings on the jury, specifically with the jury selection process. He explained that, at the time of the trial in 1991, the jury selection process in capital cases systematically excluded blacks. He added that prosecutors’ practices of striking blacks from the pool of potential jurors undermined the courts’ and the judicial system’s integrity.
Prosecutors have 60 days to appeal, and the odds are in favor of the matter going to the highest court possible, according to commentators. Prosecutors have been among the most vocal opponents of the Racial Justice Act, and, again according to court-watchers, this first decision is a prime opportunity for the state’s appeals courts to weigh in on the issue. Opponents of the law believe the act is a “back door” attempt to repeal the death sentence.
The court in this case heard the inmate’s appeal in late January and early February. The hearing lasted two and a half weeks as the inmate’s counsel presented evidence of racial bias in the county and the state and, notably, in the 1991 trial. Defense counsel told the court that prosecutors struck black jurors from the jury pool much more frequently than they struck white jurors. When all was said and done, the prosecution had struck half of the African Americans from the jury pool but just 15 percent of non-blacks. The final panel was made up of nine whites, one Native American and two blacks.
Source: News & Observer, “Judge sides with inmate in Racial Justice Act ruling,” Anne Blythe, April 20, 2012