The Racial Justice Act is back. The bill passed one chamber of the North Carolina General Assembly last year, but did not make it to a floor vote.
The Racial Justice Act simply provides that, “No person shall be subject to or given a sentence of death, or shall be executed pursuant to any judgment that was sought or obtained on the basis of race.” One would think that the law already provided such protections, but one would be wrong.
District attorneys have the discretion to decide whether to seek the death penalty in a given case. This bill would ensure that those decisions are not made based on the race of the defendant or the victim. A 2001 study found that a defendant is 3.5 times more likely to receive the death penalty in North Carolina if his victim is white.
Under the bill, prosecutors would be given the opportunity to offer a race-neutral reason for their decision to seek capital punishment. In the statewide study, race of victim was determined to be a better predictor of a death sentence than whether the defendant killed more than one person or whether he had killed before.
If the Racial Justice Act passes, courts would have to consider this kind of evidence in deciding whether the death penalty is being applied fairly in a given case. If the judge determined that the death penalty was not warranted, the defendant would still be subject to life without parole upon conviction.
The RJA was filed in the NC Senate yesterday by Floyd McKissick (D-Durham), and in the NC House by Larry Womble (D-Forsyth), Earline Parmon (D-Forsyth), Paul Luebke (D-Durham), and Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford). Fifty representatives and senators joined in co-sponsoring the bills.
The Senate version of the bill, S461, is available online here.
The House version, H472, is here.