Last night, North Carolina became only the second state in the nation to rise to the challenge posed by the US Supreme Court in McCleskey v. Kemp, in which the Court acknowledged the existence of racial bias in the administration of the death penalty but said that states would have to fix the problem for themselves. Governor Perdue is expected to sign the bill into law.
From the Winston-Salem Journal:
The General Assembly has approved a landmark bill that will allow death row inmates to challenge the death penalty by arguing that there is systemic racial bias in the way that capital punishment has been applied.Under the bill, which is expected to be signed into law by Gov. Bev Perdue, an inmate will be able to present statistical evidence showing racial disparities in how the death penalty has been used. If a judge finds the evidence convincing, the judge can overturn that inmate’s death sentence and convert it to a sentence of life in prison.
Similarly, in future murder trials in North Carolina, judges will be able to block prosecutors from pursuing the death penalty if they find a historical pattern of racial bias in the use of the death penalty.
The bill is seen by its supporters as a long-overdue solution to a history of discrimination that they say permeates the criminal-justice system and the system of capital punishment.
In an Associated Press interview, Forsyth County District Attorney Tom Keith attempted to sound the alarm, stating that the RJA could result in a flurry of former death row inmates being released on parole. Nevermind that the bill explicitly states that anyone who is granted relief under the act will be re-sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
In support of his claim, Keith cited the case of Bonnie Sue Clark – who was not sentenced to death and was never a death row inmate – and who was released from prison earlier this week after serving 22 years for the murder of her husband. It is particularly interesting that Keith would select the Clark case as an argument against the Racial Justice Act, given that Clark, a white woman, received a life sentence while her co-defendant, a black man, was sentenced to death. Robert Bacon was granted clemency by Governor Easley in 2001 due to concerns that racial bias played a role in the decision to seek and impose death in his case. Bacon’s sentence was commuted to life without parole. Unlike Ms. Clark, he remains and will die in prison.