Debunking a myth about the Racial Justice Act

As this morning’s essay by former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Burley Mitchell and his law partner Press Millen makes clear yet again, the notion that the Racial Justice Act will somehow set murderers free as is claimed by conservative opponents of the law is, in a word, poppycock.

“The greatest misapprehension concerning the act is that death row inmates who successfully challenge their sentences could go free. This is simply not true. The act only undoes the death penalty, stating that no person shall be executed based on a “judgment that was sought or obtained on the basis of race.” Under the act’s hearing procedure, if a defendant establishes that race was a significant factor in the imposition of his death sentence, the court is directed to vacate that death sentence and resentence the death row inmate to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.”

Moreover, the argument that law would somehow turn loose convicted murderers who were originally sentenced to death prior to the time the state had the possibility of life in prison without parole is equally specious.

“This argument is without legal merit for at least two reasons. First, it overlooks the entirely ameliorative effect of the act which gives those sentenced to death the chance at a less onerous sentence, namely life without parole. As the U.S. Supreme Court has put it, the death penalty is “is qualitatively different from a sentence of imprisonment, however long” and “unique in its total irrevocability.” Under the act, then, the only alternative punishment the inmate can suffer is a punishment less than execution.

Second, any inmate who raises a claim under the law necessarily waives any ex post facto claim. No inmate can claim the benefits of the act by electing to participate in the process while at the same time challenging the sole relief provided in the act. Tellingly, no inmate who has brought a claim under the act has claimed entitlement to a life sentence with parole.”

In other words, Mitchell and Milen provide more compelling evidence that Racial Justice Act opponents are simply playing politics in a cynical effort to gin up unwarranted fears of an eventuality that simply isn’t going  to come to pass. But then, what else is new with the state’s right-wing politicos?

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