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Monday, June 18, 2012

Race and North Carolina's death penalty system

If you don't live in North Carolina, you might not care about this story.

But you should, because what is true here is true in so many other states across the country.

In North Carolina, we have a serious problem of race and capital punishment. Specifically, studies show that race impacts the punishment in unallowable ways, meaning death sentences and executions cannot stand by law because race of defendant and race of victim helps determine who lives and who dies.

The Racial Justice Act, passed in 2009, allows inmates to challenge a death sentence based on a claim that race impacted the process; a judge can overturn death sentences and replace them with sentences of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole if he or she finds a race impact.

In 2011, the state's General Assembly (GA) overturned the law, yet the Governor vetoed that and the GA could not muster enough votes to overcome her appeal. You'd think that would be enough to dissuade them from trying again. But you'd be wrong, because just this week the Senate will vote on a new bill passed by the House to radically amend the law.

What motivates the GA to do this? I suppose it is an overriding desire to start killing people again, since the state has not had an execution since 2006. Oddly enough, just this month, in the first case challenging a death sentence under the Racial Justice Act, Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks issued a 167-page opinion finding that Marcus Robinson, a death row inmate, was the victim of clear discrimination in jury selection. The judge found “highly reliable” statistical evidence from a study by the Michigan State University College of Law showing racial discrimination in the removal of blacks from juries in all but four of the state’s 100 counties.

So the GA wants to do away with a law, even though a judge has already used it to overturn a death sentence based on clear evidence of racial bias in the death penalty in the state. And even though more than a hundred other appeals have already been filed under the law.

These efforts have generated enormous attention in the media, including outside the state. For example, here is the New York Times:

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