Special post-Thanksgiving session to repeal Racial Justice Act?
Today’s editorial in the Wilmington Star-News nails it. The only thing it’s missing is a scathing attack on Thom Tillis and Phil Berger for apparently embracing such reprehensible action:
“Prosecutors in North Carolina should remember that they owe allegiance to justice, not to their conviction record. It is unconscionable for anyone sworn to upholding justice to push for a law that could block justice from being done.
Yet that is exactly what North Carolina’s district attorneys are trying to do – again. They want the N.C. General Assembly, which is bent on having year-round sessions, to repeal the Racial Justice Act when they return to Raleigh on Nov. 27. They are likely to be supported by the new legislative majority; no Republicans voted for the 2009 bill. But repealing it would constitute an injustice.
The act was an attempt to ensure that the death penalty is administered more fairly in North Carolina, where a study has found that the race of the victim plays a key role in determining which murderers live and which ones are sentenced to death. The short version: Juries apparently see the murder of a white victim as more deserving of death than the killing of a black person.
The study, done by Michigan State University law professors, found that defendants who killed a white person in North Carolina were 2½ times more likely to be sentenced to death than those whose victims were black. The results align with similar studies of race as a factor in the death penalty.
The Racial Justice Act was an attempt to mitigate that disparity by allowing death penalty inmates the opportunity to prove – that’s right, the burden of proof is on the inmate – that race was a factor in the jury’s sentencing. There is no Get Out of Jail Free card on the line. Inmates who are successful, and that is likely to be very few, will have their sentences commuted to life in prison without possibility of parole.
The repeal effort is one of several measures district attorneys have supported of late that would tip the scales of justice heavily in favor of the prosecutor. Prosecutors also have pushed for a law to absolve them of responsibility to make sure the defense has access to all relevant evidence, and especially evidence that could acquit their client.
District attorneys say that the Racial Justice Act has opened a torrent of challenges. Nearly all of the state’s 159 death-row inmates have sought a review; most will not be able to provide clear and convincing evidence that their case should be heard. One who has is Marcus Robinson, convicted of killing a white teenager. Prosecutors sought to have the judge, a black jurist who has presided over death penalty cases, barred from hearing the case under the specious excuse that they might find it necessary for him to testify. Motion denied, thank goodness.
In the eyes of the law of our land, every life is equal, and every defendant has the same right to be judged on the basis of his actions rather than his background or appearance. Human beings, however, aren’t always able to set aside their own prejudices – some of which they may not even realize they harbor.
In a letter to Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, the head of the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys cited four reasons to repeal the law, including that white inmates are taking advantage of it and that it’s just too expensive.
So, cost trumps the constitutional obligation to ensure that our courts administer justice fairly? What an atrocious argument.”