The North Carolina General Assembly voted yesterday to override Gov. Bev Perdue's veto of SB 416, a bill that essentially guts the Racial Justice Act (RJA), meaning the destructive bill will become law. The RJA was an historic piece of legislation designed to address the disturbing role that race plays in the death penalty by allowing defendants in capital cases to use statistical evidence to show racial bias in the system. SB 416 cripples the ability of the RJA to address systemic racial discrimination by repealing the provision that allowed defendants to file claims showing statewide discrimination in sentencing and jury selection.
Recently, North Carolina Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks found that racial bias played a substantial role in the death sentence of defendant Marcus Robinson. Robinson challenged his death sentence under the RJA, arguing that capital sentencing, including in his own case, was plagued by racial bias in jury selection. Weeks concluded that Robinson "introduced a wealth of evidence showing the persistent, pervasive, and distorting role of race in jury selection throughout North Carolina." Robinson was resentenced to life in prison without parole. Gov. Perdue acknowledge Weeks’ ruling when she vetoed SB 416, declaring that “the judge's finding should trouble anyone who is committed to a justice system based on fairness, integrity, and equal protection under the law.” Unfortunately, it did not trouble enough legislators in the General Assembly to sustain her veto and they instead voted to turn a blind eye to the overwhelming evidence of bias in North Carolina's capital punishment system.
This is indeed a sad day for justice in North Carolina. A one-of-a-kind law that could have been a model for the nation has instead been eviscerated, just months after its true need was demonstrated in the courts. Instead of acknowledging evidence of bias in the death penalty system and allowing the courts to use the tools provided for in the RJA to remedy the impact of that bias, politicians have decided they would rather sweep this disturbing information under the rug. As the governor declared after vetoing the bill to repeal the RJA, the death penalty “has to be carried out fairly – free of prejudice . . . It is simply unacceptable for racial prejudice to play a role in the imposition of the death penalty in North Carolina.”