Blog of Rights

The Truth About the Racial Justice Act

By Cassandra Stubbs, ACLU Capital Punishment Project at 5:28pm

On August 10, 2009, the North Carolina Legislature passed a historic piece of civil rights legislation, the North Carolina Racial Justice Act (RJA), which was intended to reform racial discrimination in that state’s death penalty cases. This week, the North Carolina Legislature repealed the very same legislation.

The law was intended to prevent the execution of people based on racial bias in jury selection and prosecuting and sentencing decisions in capital cases. It would allow death row inmates to bring challenges to their death sentences based on statistics showing that racial bias was a factor at the time of their trial. If an inmate was able to show that, his or her death sentence would be converted to life in prison without parole.

Shortly after the RJA was passed, researchers from Michigan State University conducted a sweeping study of North Carolina capital cases and found discrimination statewide. From the west to the east, in cities and in rural counties, and in cases with black and white defendants alike, prosecutors overwhelmingly discriminated against qualified African-American citizens during jury selection, rejecting qualified African-American jurors at a far greater rate than qualified white jurors.

Based largely on the evidence showing widespread discrimination statewide, the vast majority of North Carolina death row inmates promptly filed claims under the RJA. With two of these cases headed for hearing in early 2012, North Carolina prosecutors lobbied the legislature to repeal the RJA based on a series of misrepresentations about the law. Unfortunately, on November 28, 2011, the Senate responded and passed SB 9, a bill to repeal the RJA. The future of this civil rights law is now in the hands of Gov. Beverly Perdue, who has the opportunity to veto the repeal legislation.

Today, the ACLU and the ACLU of North Carolina sent a letter to Gov. Perdue urging her to veto the legislation and leave the RJA intact.

The large number of claims filed — and the mass of evidence of discrimination uncovered by defendants — underscores the need for the law, not its repeal. When the evidence shows that prosecutors in almost every county in North Carolina are striking qualified African-American citizens from jury service based on their race, it is clear that our juridical system needs reform.

As North Carolina well knows, few civil rights laws have been implemented without resistance. Change is hard — undoubtedly prosecutors would like to keep their jury selection practices intact, even if they have discriminatory results. But the citizens of North Carolina are owed more. Gov. Perdue should veto the repeal law and protect North Carolina citizens from more discrimination.

If you live in North Carolina, you can help. Go here to urge Gov. Perdue to save the Racial Justice Act by vetoing SB 9. And if you live anywhere else, go here to find out what you can do to help end the discriminatory death penalty in your state.

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