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Race Contributes to Wrongful Convictions

Cassandra Stubbs,
Director Capital Punishment Project,
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September 2, 2010

An unusual collection of advocates, exonerated men and a crime victim gathered this week in Raleigh, North Carolina, to highlight the role that race plays in wrongful convictions. The group filed an amicus brief in the case of Melvin White, an African-American death row inmate in North Carolina who maintains his innocence and has filed a claim under North Carolina’s historic Racial Justice Act.

As the brief recounts, African-American defendants are more likely to be wrongfully convicted of crimes punishable by death. In North Carolina, six of the seven exonerated death row inmates were people of color. The last three men exonerated from death row in North Carolina were all African-American, including ACLU client Bo Jones. The majority of nationwide death row exonerations are all also disproportionately people of color.

The explanations for these racial disparities range from deliberate racial stereotyping — such as the perception of jurors and law enforcement that African-Americans are more “prone to violence” — to unconscious racism. For example, witnesses are far more likely to misidentify perpetrators of different races from their own, even if they hold no conscious racial prejudices.

The risk that an innocent person may be executed, intolerable under any circumstance, is a heightened one for African-American defendants. The Racial Justice Act gives courts the tools to eliminate this risk by imposing life sentences in those cases where race played a role in the process.

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