January 01, 2012

First Hearing Concludes Under the North Carolina Racial Justice Act

Krista Dolan

The first hearing under North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act (“RJA”) concluded on February 16, 2012. The RJA, signed into law in August 2009, allows a death row prisoner to challenge his sentence using evidence of systemic racial bias in the administration of the death penalty in North Carolina. Prior to the enactment of the Racial Justice Act, anyone seeking to challenge his sentence based on a claim of racial bias had to show that race played an impermissible role specifically in his case, without the use of statistical evidence. Under the RJA, however, a prisoner can challenge his sentence by using statistics to show a systemic racial bias in decisions to “seek or impose the sentence of death” within the county, district, division, or state where he was sentenced.

Marcus Robinson, an African American death row prisoner convicted in Cumberland County, claimed that, at his trial, prosecutors improperly struck half the blacks eligible to be on his jury. Mr. Robinson also claimed that race plays a systemic role in prosecutors’ decisions to seek the death penalty and that the victim’s race plays a systemic role in juries’ decisions to issue the death penalty. During the two-and-a-half-week hearing, prosecutors and defense attorneys presented testimony from statisticians and researchers. Under the RJA, if his claim is successful, his sentence will be commuted to life in prison without parole. Judge Gregory A. Weeks, who presided over the hearing, is expected to rule in March 2012.

The hearing comes just one month after the RJA’s near-repeal due to a bill introduced by state Senate Republicans. The repeal bill, SB 9, would severely limit the impact of the RJA. It would prohibit defendants from using statistical evidence to show that race was a significant factor in the decisions to seek or impose the death sentence. It also would replace the current language of the RJA with much more generic language that Senate Republicans claim puts the bill more in line with existing federal law, which does not allow consideration of statistical evidence.

North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue vetoed the repeal bill on December 14, 2011. The Senate voted to override her veto on January 4, 2012, but in the House, the bill was referred to the Committee on the Judiciary. House Majority Leader Paul Stam said that it is unlikely that the House will take up the bill again soon, which leaves the RJA in effect for now.

North Carolina currently has 158 prisoners on death row: 83 are black and 63 are white. Of those 158 prisoners, all but three have filed complaints under the RJA.

Krista Dolan

Legal Intern