Dominion of New York

Social Justice

June 21, 2012

North Carolina Invalidates Landmark Racial Justice Act

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Written by: Dax-Devlon Ross
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Marcus Robinson used the Racial Justice Act to have his sentence commuted. North Carolina Department of Public Safety.


ust two months after North Carolina death row inmate Marcus Robinson made history by having his racially biased death sentence commuted to life in prison, the North Carolina state legislature has passed a bill that would make it virtually impossible for other death row inmates to use racial bias as a justification for doing the same. A veto of “Amend Death Penalty Procedures” bill is likely, but lawmakers appear to have enough votes to override it. If enacted, ADPP will undermine or terminate the nearly 159 racial bias claims that have been filed by North Carolina’s death row inmates since 2009.

“This action is necessary to end the moratorium on the death penalty. The death penalty acts as a deterrent only if it is used. The death penalty will obviously not deter if the state only pretends to have a death penalty and never carries out the sentence,” said House Majority Leader Paul “Skip” Stam, the bill’s most outspoken supporter (and the architect of the infamous Amendment 1) said in a June statement.

Here is how the “Amend Death Penalty Procedures” bill would change the Racial Justice Act (RJA):

Race of the victim:

RJA allowed for the introduction of evidence that death sentences were more frequently sought or imposed when people of one race were the victims.

The ADPP would reject the race of the victim as evidence.

The use of statistics:

RJA allowed as evidence statistics showing that a particular racial or ethnic group was more likely to be sentenced to death.

The ADPP would prohibit the use of statistics as the sole basis for a successful bias claim and require other, though unspecified, evidence.

Time period:

RJA allowed inmates to present as proof of racial bias statistical evidence from any era.

ADPP accepts as evidences data from10 years before the crime and two years after.

Location of the capital trial:

RJA allowed inmates to introduce evidence that bias occurred in the state to prove their claim.

ADPP limits the data to the county or district where the crime took place.

The enactment of the bill would eviscerate the state’s landmark 2009 Racial Justice Act, by invalidating key provisions that made the act meaningful and effective. The act allowed death row inmates to use a wide variety of evidence to prove racial bias in their sentencing, and entitled those who proved it to a new sentence of life in prison. In Robinson’s case, a pair of Michigan State law professors showed that “race was a materially, practically and statistically significant factor” in the jury selection process in trials across the county and state. Their results indicated that over a 20 year period — from 1990 to 2010 — in death penalty cases, North Carolina prosecutors were more than twice as likely to strike qualified blacks from serving on a jury as members of other races.

The Racial Justice Act became law in 2009, under a Democrat-led legislature. The law, which passed by one vote, resulted in nearly all of the state’s 159 inmates filing claims within the one-year filing period. In 2011, state prosecutors launched an effort in a newly-enshrined Republican majority legislature to overturn the law. A 2011 bill made its way to Governor Bev Perdue’s desk before being vetoed. This time around legislators appear to have swung enough votes from the conservative Democrats to override a possible veto by the governor.

Supporters of the law had initially hailed Robinson’s success as the beginning of a major new effort against the racially unjust administration of capital punishment in the state. African-American males comprise 11 percent of the state’s population but make up 55 percent of the state’s total death row inmates. On closer inspection of capital cases, researchers found that the race and sex of the victim played an extremely important role in who received death sentencs. Black defendants who murdered white victims were 5.153 times more likely to face the death penalty compared to black defendants who killed black victims. The murder of a white woman was 40 times more likely than the murder of black man to result in the death penalty. White women account for less than 14 percent of the murder victims statewide but 43 percent of those for whom the murderer was put to death. Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 only two executions in the state stemmed from the murder of a black man.

Death sentences have become less common and less popular in North Carolina. And since 2006, when the state’s medical board prohibited doctors from attending proceedings, the state’s death penalty has been under a moratorium. More recently the state has been mired in a lawsuit brought by death row inmates claiming that the lethal injection method could lead to cruel and unusual punishment. In the last six years, 17 people have been sentenced to death.

Observers note a number of factors influencing the state’s disenchantment with capital punishment. In 2001, the Indigent Services Commission was created to place higher standards on defense attorneys and provide defense support for criminal trials. In 2006, the state created the nation’s first Innocence Inquiry Commission. The commission has since heard hundreds of claims. In the last decade, seven defendants have left North Carolina’s death row as a result of exoneration. In Greg Taylor’s 2010 exoneration case, the FBI found that the state’s crime lab omitted, overstated or falsely reported blood evidence over a 16-year period. The finding has sparked a slew of suits by other inmates claiming to have been disadvantaged by the crime lab.

Lawyers representing other death row inmates who filed their RJA claims in 2010 have promised to take the fight to the courts. “It would be unfair and unconstitutional to apply the law so that only one person would have gotten relief and everyone else similarly situated will not,” said Ken Rose of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in North Carolina, which is handling several of the claims. “The courts should decline to apply the new law where the old law was in effect.”

About the Author

Dax-Devlon Ross
Dax-Devlon Ross
The author of six books, Dax has been featured on WNYC, WBAI,, Democracy Now, and Pacific Radio. His work on race, youth culture and criminal justice has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. He has lectured on literature and hip-hop culture at Fordham, Pace, City College and NYU. His book, Beat of a Different Drum (Hyperion, 2006), explored the lives of 30 African-American creatives and iconolasts.


Official portrait from his tenure as US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.