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June 01, 2013

North Carolina Repeals Historic Racial Bias Law, Creating Uncertainty About Pending Cases

Victoria Edel

On June 19, 2013, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed the repeal of the state’s Racial Justice Act, a 2009 law that allowed death row prisoners to challenge their sentences using statewide statistics showing bias based on the race of the defendant or victim or in jury selection. Amendments to the Act in 2012 eliminated the race of the victim as a factor and restricted proof of racial bias to the county or prosecutorial district, rather than allowing the use of statewide or regional data. One year later, the legislature succeeded in repealing the Act entirely.

Opponents of the Act claimed that it would create a de facto moratorium on the death penalty in North Carolina, where no prisoners have been executed since 2006. Before it was repealed, the large majority of death row prisoners in North Carolina had filed claims under one or both versions the Act. The legislature’s decision to first modify and then repeal the Act leaves open numerous questions about how those cases will now be handled by the courts.

Before the repeal, North Carolina courts had already granted relief to four death row prisoners who filed claims under the Act. The courts found that each defendant satisfied the standard for proving that race was a “significant factor” in their individual death sentences under both the original Act and the 2012 modification. These decisions were supported by compelling evidence of systemic bias throughout the state. Prisoners with pending claims at the time of repeal will argue that the courts should hear their cases as well.

Victoria Edel