This week, rather than acknowledge a growing mountain of evidence of racial bias in death penalty proceedings, especially in the selection of capital juries, the North Carolina House of Representatives chose to essentially gut the Racial Justice Act (RJA). Senate Bill 416, the so-called “Amend Death Penalty Procedures” makes it so that a judge may not make a finding of racial bias in the system based on statistical proof – as North Carolina Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks did just a few months ago in the first-ever ruling under the RJA.
Just three years ago, in 2009, the North Carolina General Assembly pledged to prohibit race from playing a role in the question of who lives or dies under North Carolina’s death penalty scheme, and passed the RJA. The law was designed to allow a defendant facing capital charges or one already on death row to make a claim that race played a significant role in either the prosecutor’s decision to seek death or selection of the jurors. Of particular importance, the law allowed a defendant to present statistical evidence to show racial bias in the system in which he was tried, convicted and sentenced to die. Just a few months ago, Judge Weeks found that Marcus Robinson “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 the capital jury selection proceedings.” As a remedy to this conclusive finding of racial bias, Marcus Robinson was resentenced to life in prison without parole.
This week, rather than acknowledge this “clear signal of the need for reform,” the House launched a direct attack on the entire RJA, a nationally recognized civil rights law that should, as one legislator said yesterday, serve as a model across the nation. Senate Bill 416 would require a judge to ignore statistical evidence pointing to the pervasive and disturbing role that race plays in jury selection and sentencing unless the defendant could also produce a “smoking gun,” such as a prosecutor’s racist statement or associational membership. The bill would sweep heaps of evidence establishing bias under the rug.
Repeal of the RJA is absolutely the wrong direction for North Carolina. The state cannot turn its back on such evidence, as this bill seeks to do. If we are truly dedicated to giving every North Carolinian fair and equal treatment under the law, we must confront that evidence head on and seek ways to reform our system. We must allow the Racial Justice Act to keep doing the work it was designed to do and eliminate bias from our system.