Commentary

NY Times lead Sunday editorial decries “a travesty…for everyone in North Carolina”

In case you missed it, the lead editorial in Sunday’s New York Times was about North Carolina. “They Were Freed From Death Row. Republicans Put Them Back.” (the paper version shortened the headline to “Republican Return 4 to Death Row”) decries the outrageous state of affairs surrounding four individuals on the state’s Death Row who will get another chance at justice in the state Supreme Court this week.

As you are probably aware by now, the “Racial Justice Act”was a law that briefly graced the state’s statute books from 2009 to 2013 and that sought to provide a means for individuals who had been sentenced to death to make a demonstration that their sentences were the result of racial bias. As the editorial points out, this was easy in North Carolina because research showed that prosecutors removed potential jurors of color at twice the ratio they removed white potential jurors in death cases. 

Using the law, four individuals on death row successfully challenged their sentences under the law and were re-sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole. Of course, when Republicans got control of the legislature and the Governor’s mansion in 2013, they repealed the law. (WRAL has a useful summary of the matter that you can read by clicking here.)

As the conclusion of the editorial explains, the situation degenerated after that:

With the racial-justice act out of the picture, the state appealed the re-sentencings in the four cases that had been decided under it, and in 2015, the North Carolina Supreme Court sent the cases back for further review, because the state had not been given enough time to respond to the Michigan State study on biased juror strikes.

Shortly after, state officials disregarded the state Supreme Court’s order and returned the four plaintiffs to death row without a court holding hearings or considering new evidence or arguments. The state still has not provided any explanation for the racial discrepancy in juror strikes, arguing only that the repeal of the law means the plaintiffs go back to death row.

In the state Supreme Court next week, these plaintiffs…will make numerous constitutional arguments, but they all boil down to the same issue: State lawmakers passed a law to find racial bias in their justice system. They found it. Rather than build on that success, new lawmakers repealed the law and re-punished the people who had benefited from it. These plaintiffs aren’t bringing claims of innocence; they are arguing that they deserve the same constitutional protections as anyone else, including against double jeopardy.

This situation is a travesty not only for the prisoners involved, but for everyone in North Carolina, which had taken an important step toward addressing persistent racial discrimination in its justice system, only to turn back the clock once Republicans took power.

Let’s hope the Supreme Court corrects this injustice.

Note: Policy Watch reporter Melissa Boughton will be at the court providing coverage of the arguments. Be sure to check back today and tomorrow for updates.

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