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Justice Under Attack: The North Carolina Legislature Takes Aim at the Racial Justice Act

Mass Incarceration
Mass Incarceration
Cassandra Stubbs,
Director Capital Punishment Project,
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April 5, 2013

In 2009, North Carolina made history by becoming the first state to pass a law that addressed the systemic problems of racial discrimination in jury selection in capital cases. In the three years since the Racial Justice Act (RJA) was enacted, this law has uncovered systemic discrimination. In four cases, North Carolina death row inmates presented sweeping evidence that racial discrimination in jury selection tainted their trials, and had their death sentences converted to life without parole under the law.

For the last year, the North Carolina legislature has been working to overturn this important legislation – the most recent threat to justice coming this week with the vote by State Senate repeal the RJA. North Carolina needs to preserve the RJA, as it should serve as model legislation that all states should adopt to stamp out the racial discrimination that runs rampant in capital cases nationwide.
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The struggle for racial justice in North Carolina has deep roots. Remember that on February 1, 1960, four college students in Greensboro, North Carolina took on racial segregation by refusing to leave a Woolworth lunch counter. The four students were joined by others until there were more than 300 people participating on the fourth day. The protests spread to other towns in North Carolina, and eventually through the South, ultimately contributing to the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

The path towards justice was far from smooth, however. The protesters often encountered violent reactions and resistance from local officials. The police dogs and fire hoses unleashed by Police Chief Bull Connor against children may be the most famous examples, but are far from the only ones.

Unfortunately, this pattern of progress and resistance is not relegated to the history books. It is playing out now as the North Carolina General Assembly considers a bill to repeal the RJA. In additional to addressing the system problem of racial discrimination in jury selection in capital cases, the RJA also bars racial discrimination in prosecutor’s charging decisions and jury sentencing. When the RJA was enacted, it served as a courageous promise that the citizens of North Carolina would not accept discrimination in the death penalty system. If a defendant showed sweeping discrimination and prevailed under the law, he or she would see his or her death sentence converted to life without parole. No exceptions.

The law lived up to its promise in February 2012, when a Cumberland County judge heard the first case brought under the RJA. After weeks of testimony and a mountain of evidence, the judge concluded that there was powerful and overwhelming evidence that racial bias had played a role in North Carolina’s jury selection, and in the defendant’s own trial. That defendant was resentenced to life without parole.

The reaction of the North Carolina legislature was swift. It almost immediately attempted to repeal the RJA. This first repeal effort was rejected, after the then-Governor Beverly Perdue vetoed the bill. Legislators did successfully, however, rewrite and narrow the RJA, to require that future cases focus on discrimination within the defendant’s home county and district, rather than address the powerful evidence of statewide discrimination.

Justice still prevailed. In the fall of 2012, three more defendants proceeded to hearing, this time under the new law. They again unearthed a mountain of evidence of the cheating and discriminatory practices the prosecutors employed. Again, the court found violations of the RJA and sentenced the defendants to life without parole. The judge issued a pointed statement about the impact of his findings: “The Court takes hope that acknowledgment of the ugly truth of race discrimination revealed by Defendants’ evidence is the first step in creating a system of justice that is free from the pernicious influence of race, a system that truly lives up to our ideal of equal justice under the law.”

These rulings demanded action by North Carolina prosecutors: they required prosecutors to put aside their discriminatory practices and reform capital case litigation.

North Carolina prosecutors had a different kind of action in mind. Rather than confronting their discriminatory practices, they called their friends in the legislature and asked them to wipe out the law.

Like the prosecutors who lobbied for repeal, the legislators who vote to repeal the RJA will join the shameful ranks of those who have historically resisted racial justice in our state. If they succeed, it will be a large step back forward for the North Carolina. But justice is long, and the truth is a stubborn force.

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