Published: Jun 12, 2012 07:00 PM
Modified: Jun 11, 2012 12:38 PM
The following is an open letter to members of the N.C. General Assembly
We find ourselves in strange times. One day a governing body takes bold steps to challenge a legacy of hate and violence perpetrated by the Eugenics Board of North Carolina. The next day the same body takes the regressive step to take us back to the days of Jim Crow justice by introducing legislation to repeal the Racial Justice Act.
Two Superior Court judges in North Carolina examined the law and evidence. The first found the RJA constitutional. And the second, the Cumberland County Superior Court, examined the comprehensive evidence presented to it by both sides for several months. Two months ago, the court found that race played a significant role in the death sentence of the first RJA petitioner, and changed his death sentence to life in prison without parole. The court found what virtually every researcher who has studied the death penalty process has shown: racism infects much of this system and its ultimate punishment: the death penalty.
It is unconscionable that legislators would now try to intervene in the business of the judicial branch. The courts are established as an independent branch of government, to take cold, hard, objective looks at the facts surrounding the employment of the ultimate punishment against a human being.
The ultra-right leadership in the People’s House, having failed to muster enough votes to repeal the RJA several times, now tries to sneak in the back door with a bill that strips the guts out of the historic N.C. Racial Justice Act. By removing the use of statewide statistics from the RJA, the House leadership now tries to sneak through a repeal bill, disguised as an “amendment.” The House leadership should be ashamed of this kind of fakery and race-baiting trickery.
Everyone in the People’s House knows race plays a role in whether someone receives a death sentence. Researchers from Michigan State University showed defendants with white victims are 2.6 times more likely to receive the death penalty than if the victims are African-American. Potential African-American jurors are dismissed from juries at over twice the rate of their white counterparts. Thirty-one defendants on death row were sentenced by all-white juries; 38 more were sentenced to death by juries with only one person of color. The Racial Justice Act allows the Court to consider these significant disparities in its analysis of a defendant’s claim. Looking at these egregious racial disparities provides a cultural and social context of how racism plagues the death penalty system.
In the case of the first RJA petitioner in Fayetteville two months ago, the Superior Court concluded that the defendant “introduced a wealth of evidence showing the persistent, pervasive, and distorting role of race in jury selection throughout North Carolina. The evidence, largely unrebutted by the State, requires relief in this case and should serve as a clear signal of the need for reform in capital jury selection proceedings in the future.”
The bill before you, SB 416, would overrule this finding, and take North Carolina backward. Vote against SB 416 and any other attempt to repeal or alter the Racial Justice Act.
The Rev. William J. Barber II is the president of the N.C. State Conference of the NAACP.