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March 01, 2011

Racial Justice Act Withstands Constitutional Challenge in North Carolina

On February 10th, 2011 in North Carolina, Forsyth County Superior Court Judge William Z. Wood rejected a challenge to the Racial Justice Act (RJA), signed into law in August 2009.  The law allows defendants who may receive or have received a death sentence to avoid execution due to racial bias in sentencing.  In Forsyth County, 58 percent of death-sentenced prisoners were sentenced by juries with fewer than two people of color, compared with 40 percent statewide.  Forsyth County had more black defendants with all-white juries on death row than any other county in North Carolina.  Additionally, in Forsyth from 1990 to 2009, cases that involved white victims were far more likely to result in death sentences than cases that involved victims of other races.

Racial bias claims can be raised by a defendant in the pretrial conference or in post-conviction proceedings.  The measure allows judges to consider whether statistical data show race to be a key factor in putting a defendant on trial for his life or receiving the death penalty.  One or more of the following would constitute a violation of the RJA: death sentences were sought or imposed significantly more frequently upon persons of one race than upon persons of another race; death sentences were sought or imposed significantly more frequently as punishment for capital offenses against persons of one race than as punishment of capital offenses against persons of another race; and/or race was a significant factor in decisions to exercise peremptory challenges during jury selection. Prosecutors have the opportunity to refute the claim that statistical disparities indicate racial bias.  If racial bias is proven, a judge can overturn the death sentence or prevent prosecutors from seeking the death penalty.  Proof of an RJA violation does not entitle the defendant to a new trial or a new sentencing hearing.  Under the RJA, the prisoner who makes a successful claim will have his sentence commuted to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

There are currently 159 prisoners on death row in North Carolina, 86 of whom are black and 61 white.  Since the RJA was signed into law, 154 death row prisoners in North Carolina have attempted to challenge their sentences with claims of racial bias. District attorneys across the state formed a committee to develop a cohesive strategy for prosecutors to fight the appeals.  Prosecutors will argue the specifics of each case and judges will balance the evidence against county and statewide statistics.