Reflections: The NC Racial Justice Act and its Impact on Our State

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Jennifer Marsh is a civil rights lawyer and the Center’s new Director of Research, Community Services and Student Programs. Prior to joining the Center, Jennifer served as the Project Manager and Senior Attorney for the Racial Justice Act study conducted by Michigan Law School. She provided her reflections on the landmark hearing last month that commuted three death sentences under North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act.

On Thursday, December 13, 2012, Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks issued a ruling under the North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act (RJA). The order commuted the death sentences of three notorious murderers and resentenced them to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

That is all most people hear when the RJA comes up, and the reaction is often anger. Passed in 2009, the RJA states that “no person shall be subject to… a sentence of death… pursuant to any judgment that was sought or obtained on the basis of race.” The law allowed the use of statistical evidence in addition to other evidence from court officials. Should the court find race was a factor in decisions to seek or impose the death penalty, the only permissible relief is to vacate the death sentence and resentence the individual to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. In 2012, the law was amended to severely limit the use of statistical evidence but still allowed relevant evidence from court officials and others involved in the criminal justice system to show that race was a significant factor in seeking a sentence of death or in jury selection in death penalty cases. Judge Weeks issue the first ruling under the original RJA in April 2012 and issued the second ruling under both the original and amended RJA in December 2012.

RJA opponents question why heinous killers are being “let off.” Let’s be clear, the question of guilt was not at issue. No one has suggested the four individuals released from death row did not commit some of the most heinous crimes our state has seen. Rather, their guilt was acknowledged and they are now serving life in prison without the possibility of parole. Every person in the courtroom, regardless of their position on the Racial Justice Act, empathized with the families of the victims of these crimes.

Under RJA claims, the question is fairness. We operate under the idea that our criminal justice system is color-blind and that individuals are judged by a group of their peers. Study after study shows this is not the reality, but rather that race plays a significant role in determining who is charged with the death penalty, who is sentenced to death and who is picked to sit on those juries. Judge Weeks ruled race played an improper role in the jury selection in the trials of each of these three individuals. One fact he pointed to is prosecutors struck an average of 56% of eligible black venire members, compared to only 24.8% of all other eligible venire members.

It is easy to disregard studies, disparage numbers, make accusations of number manipulation and claim statistics do not tell the entire story. But Judge Weeks also found evidence that the Cumberland County prosecutor’s office has a history of intentionally accounting for race in jury selection, including training prosecutors on how to overcome Batsonchallenges and taking extraordinary steps to seat juries that are more likely to award a death sentence. The judge called for our courts to acknowledge the unfairness that exists in the judicial system. His hope is that once we as a society acknowledge these severe inequities exist, it will be the first step in creating a fair, color-blind criminal justice system.

Judge Weeks’ ruling calls into question not just the system by which we apply the death penalty but all aspects of the criminal justice system. Compelling data show bias against people of color from the moment they first enter the criminal justice system and continues at each stage, infecting everything from charges imposed, to decisions regarding bail and pre-trial detention, to the penalties imposed. Data collected by the NC Racial Justice Task Force shows minorities are much more likely to be pulled over, to be searched, to be arrested and to be convicted.

This data is a stark reminder of the racial inequities Judge Weeks so courageously found are clearly alive and continue to impact people of color. Let us take the good judge’s advice and begin by acknowledging the racial discrimination and inequities and take the first step in creating a fair, color-blind society.

Posted by Jennifer Watson Marsh on Tue. January 8, 2013 4:00 PM
Categories: Criminal Justice, Race Discrimination
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