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ACLU Lens: North Carolina Repeals Historic Legislation Combating Racism in Death Penalty

Will Matthews,
ACLU of Northern California
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November 29, 2011

The North Carolina state Senate late Monday voted to repeal an historic 2009 law that would have helped ensure that death sentences handed down in the state were not the result of racial bias.

The Racial Justice Act allows death row prisoners like Marcus Robinson a hearing in which they can present statistics and other evidence showing that death sentences state- and county-wide were tainted by racism and that their death sentence should be commuted to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

“We know the death penalty system in North Carolina and across the nation is plagued by discrimination and this law is merely an attempt to ensure that no one is wrongfully sentenced to death because of racial bias,” said Denny LeBoeuf, director of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project. “If a capital case was not tainted by race discrimination, the Racial Justice Act will help prove that. But it is in no one’s interest to uphold death sentences where jurors were excluded, prosecutions were selected or defendants sentenced to death based on the color of their skin.”

Last night’s vote comes after state prosecutors this month intensified their calls for repeal, unhappy with a recent Michigan State University study showing a significantly higher likelihood that prosecutors would eliminate potential African-American jurors and that defendants are more than twice as likely to be sentenced to death if the victim is white than if the victim is black. Prosecutors were also unsuccessful this month in an attempt to oust the African-American judge slated to oversee the first hearing held under the law.

North Carolina, one of 34 states to maintain the death penalty, has the nation’s sixth-largest death row. Well over half of the prisoners on the state’s death row are black.

The repeal legislation approved by the Senate last night, and which was approved in June by the state House, now lands on the desk of Gov. Beverly Perdue, who has the opportunity to veto it and leave the Racial Justice Act intact.

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