North Carolina Moves Against Executions Based on Race

"Ain't it a great day in North Carolina!" North Carolina General Assembly Representative Larry Womble celebrated with these words this morning, moments before North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue signed into law a bill Rep. Womble championed entitled the "Racial Justice Act". The bill will allow criminal defendants facing the death penalty to introduce statistics as evidence of impermissible racial discrimination in their capital sentencing proceedings.

North Carolina joins only Kentucky in passing legislation that says, as a matter of state law, proof of systemic racial discrimination in capital sentencing decisions may be introduced in challenges to a death sentence or capital prosecution.

North Carolina's progress in developing its own law to fight racial discrimination in capital sentencing is significant because the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision called McCleskey v. Kemp, ruled 22 years ago that statistical evidence of systemic racial bias may not be used to challenge a death sentence under federal constitutional law: such a challenge requires, instead, proof of that the individual decision makers in a particular case acted with racially discriminatory purpose.

The Supreme Court's decision in McCleskey was startling. The court's ruling effectively condoned substantial racial disparities in Georgia's use of the death penalty, proven by sophisticated statistical analyses which the court accepted as true. These statistics showed that, after controlling for nonracial factors, a person convicted of killing a white person was 11 times more likely to receive the death penalty than a person who killed a black person, and that convicted killers of white victims faced odds of being sentenced to death that were 4.3 times higher than the odds faced by convicted killers of African-American victims. (When later asked by a biographer if he could change his vote on any decision, the author of this opinion, Justice Lewis Powell, replied: "Yes. McCleskey.").

Although we are living in what some commentators call a post-racial society since the election of President Obama, we have yet to heed Martin Luther King Jr's admonishment to judge people by their character and not the color of their skin. Regrettably, the racial discrimination shown in McCleskey continues to play a substantial role in the decision of whom states choose to execute.

In North Carolina alone, three African-American men in the last two years have been exonerated from death row after being false convicted of murders involving white victims. That list includes Levon "Bo" Jones, who served 16 years on death row for a murder against a white man that he did not commit. Jones was represented by the Capital Punishment Project. Similarly, the findings the Court considered in McCleskey are not limited to Georgia 20 or more years ago. A study done at University of North Carolina -Chapel Hill several years ago found that a defendant's odds of getting the death penalty in North Carolina increased by 3.5 times if the victim is white.

Passage of the Racial Justice Act constituted an enormous victory for civil rights activists, concerned religious leaders, and other advocates. The victory took years of organizing and hard work, against a determined opposition.

And passage was particularly gratifying for the Capital Punishment Project and ACLU of North Carolina. The legislators and advocates who spoke at the bill-signing ceremony today acknowledged Sarah Preston, the ACLU of North Carolina's legislative counsel for her hard work on the bill. They also recognized our client, Bo Jones, for the part he played in drawing attention to this issue. Finally, the chief advocate for this bill statewide was the Reverend William J. Barber, II., the President of the North Carolina NAACP, whom the ACLU of North Carolina honored this past November with its Paul Green Award for Efforts to Abolish the Death Penalty.

Yes, indeed, a great day in North Carolina.

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Jack

Tremendous news!

I've reread this sentence from the fourth paragraph a few times to make sure, but I think there might be an error here: "These statistics showed that, after controlling for nonracial factors, a person convicted of killing a white person was 11 times more likely to receive the death penalty than a person who killed a black person, and that convicted killers of white victims faced odds of being sentenced to death that were 4.3 times higher than the odds faced by convicted killers of African-American victims."

I think that both of the statistics here say the same thing (that a person convicted of killing a white person are more likely to receive the death penalty than a person convicted of killing a Black person). Am I reading it wrong, or is this written incorrectly?

Steve

It is because of these things that make me question the death penalty. If a black person is accused of killing a white person, those who may be investigating and prosecuting the case might have a personal vendetta against the accused, or there may be a public outcry of wanting justice and wanting it now. In the town of Ashton, ID. there was a case of a white male in his twenties or thirties who was accused of murdering a fifteen year old girl and was convicted. It turns out he did not commit the crime. During the ballistics test, the weapon in question was fired some thirty times before they had a "match". Thus, it was a good ol' boy system and a personal grudge that locked this man up for twenty some years before he was cleared of these crimes. Sad to say, he enjoyed very little of his freedom because he died of a stroke soon after being released from prison. If they are convicted beyond a reasonable doubt (the man who murdered Holly Klass for example), give them the syringe. But if there's doubt, we need to make sure an innocent person is not wrongly convicted and put to death for a crime he didn't commit.

Brian Stull

Jack, you are reading that sentence correctly. These studies, which have been replicated in many states, suggest that the crime is more serious when the victim is white.

As Professor Anthony Amsterdam said in a recent address on the McCleskey case, "In every watering hole in every American State and locality, criminal trial lawyers in their cups recite some version of the same Statement of the Real Law of Homicide, which goes: 'If a black man kill a white man, that be first-degree murder; if a white man kill a white man, that be second-degree murder; if a black man kill a black man, that be mere manslaughter; whereas if a white man kill a black man that be excusable homicide (unless a woman be involved, in which cases the black man died of natural causes).'"

Thanks for reading.

Maggie

Good News!

However I do have a question about this sentence: Does this mean that a person (black or white) convicted of killing a white person are more likely to receive the death penalty than a person (black or white) convicted of killing a black person?

Paen

Personaly I find it strange that many of those who are the most paranoid about big governement are also those who clammor the loudest for the death penalty.

Liberal Hater

The Aclu is a bunch of lying thugs. They with their liberal cohort act like niggers are being executed far more than whites. Hey idiots blacks are committing over half the crimes in this country even though they compose only 13% of the population. If truth be told most niggers should be executed for being drug pushers, murderers, and lazy good for nothing welfare receivers.

Birdman69

Racial Justice Act...the name alone sounds discriminatory to me, a white male. Either we ALL are equal, or we are not. Which is it? Also, if ONE class of people are to be 'protected' then ALL classes of people need to be 'protected', including whites. I am NOT a racist, but do beleive that we all are equal and there should be NO favortisim to ANY race, ethnicity (or gender).

roald

Birdie, isn't Caucasian a race?

Paen

Liberal Hater why don't you find a very large African American man and share such wisdom with him.I am sure that you would find the experience quite exciting.

roald

Paen, let us suggest a very large African American man with the same temperament as Liberal Hater and bigoted feelings toward Whites. I know some large African American men who pretty much incapable of losing their tempers with ignorant people.

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