The Racial Justice Act is only two years old and it may be in its final days. The state Senate “rewrote” the law this week and it is now in the hands of Governor Bev Perdue who has released no indication of whether or not she will sign it. Perdue signed the act into law in 2009, but then so did the Senate.
The law sought to ensure there was no racial bias in determining who would be sentenced to death in the state. It allows for appeals of a death sentence when there was racial bias present, this after research showed a murderer was far more likely to get the death penalty if the victim was white.
Since its passage, 154 out of 157 death row inmates in the state have sought hearings under the new law. While no one can realistically believe all 154 of these cases were based in racial bias, it would seem an injustice to allow even one biased sentence to be carried out.
The details on the rewrite aren’t clear and it seems that some are downplaying the changes. “This is not a repeal of the Racial Justice Act,” says Senator Thom Goolsby (R-Wilmington). “It’s a reform, a modification.”
Senator Josh Stein (D-Raleigh), on the other hand, says, “This is an utter and total repeal.”
Opponents of the law believe that it does nothing to ensure fair application of the death sentence and is instead a backdoor attempt at an eventual repeal of the death penalty. Goolsby said the act had “very little to do with race or justice.” Calling it instead a “Trojan horse” used by people opposed to the death penalty.
Before the Senate voted on the changes, they heard from victims’ families, prosecutors, and people who had been wrongly accused of crimes. One man, an African American, spoke about being one of 7 death row inmates exonerated in North Carolina. “I was one vote away from the death penalty,” he said. “I had 11 whites and one black on my jury. If you think that race did not play a factor in my case, then you’re not living here in North Carolina.”
Because research has shown racial disparities in the administration of the death penalty, it seems only just that there be safeguards in place to ensure people aren’t treated unfairly because of their race, even when they are convicted of murder. On the other hand, it’s understandable that there may have been some loopholes in the original legislation if nearly all inmates on death row are filing for hearings.
It seems as if we won’t know the true scope of the changes until they are signed into law. If Perdue passes on the changes, the first case under the Racial Justice Act will be heard in January in Cumberland County.
Fair treatment in the criminal courts is a serious matter. It is the job of your defense attorney to do everything possible to ensure your rights are protected throughout the process. If you are accused of a criminal offense, contact our offices today to discuss your case.