Race And Justice In North Carolina: Sinking Into The Past

Death row inmate Marcus Robinson listens in Fayetteville, North Carolina as Judge Greg Weeks found that racial bias played a role in his trial and sentencing. It was the first case to be decided under the North Carolina's Racial Justice Act (Photo Credit: Shawn Rocco/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT via Getty Images).

Death row inmate Marcus Robinson listens in Fayetteville, North Carolina as Judge Greg Weeks found that racial bias played a role in his trial and sentencing. It was the first case to be decided under the North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act (Photo Credit: Shawn Rocco/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT via Getty Images).

I grew up in Durham, North Carolina in the 1970s. Racism – the Jim Crow kind – was still there in pockets, but it seemed to be receding; or at least it was being replaced by the less overt, white-flight variety. I left home for college in the 1980s and watched from a distance as North Carolina continued to struggle to extricate itself from its legacy of racism.

The death penalty is one of the ugliest vestiges of that ugly legacy, but North Carolina has not executed anyone since 2006. There were no death sentences in 2012. A poll earlier this year showed that majorities of North Carolinians support replacing the death penalty with life without parole.


Is Racial Justice In North Carolina Coming Or Going?

North Carolina is a state being pulled in two directions at once.  A Southern state, with that legacy of slavery and racism, North Carolina has been, historically, an avid user of the death penalty.  No more.  There have been no executions since 2006, and this year (for the first time in 35 years) there were no death sentences either. Passage of the Racial Justice Act in 2009, which promised to expose past and present racial biases at work in North Carolina’s criminal justice system, was hailed as an inspiring example of a Southern state courageously coming to terms with its racial realities.

Then, in April, Cumberland County Superior Court judge Meeks ruled that “race was a significant factor in prosecutorial decisions” in the case of Marcus Robinson, and commuted his death sentence. When confronted with this stark example of racial bias in practice, the political response was swift: cut and run.  By July, the RJA had been gutted; next year it will probably be repealed entirely.  The racial bias embedded in North Carolina criminal justice will once again be swept under the rug.  Enlightenment will be shunned, and blissful ignorance embraced.


Death Penalty In 2012: Seven Significant Signs

A final tally of the Connecticut legislature's  vote to abolish the death penalty.

A final tally of the Connecticut legislature’s vote to abolish the death penalty.

By this time at the end of the year, states have generally stopped killing their prisoners. This break from executions is a good thing, and perhaps this year it will give us a chance to reflect on the larger question of our violent culture, and on how perhaps we can start focusing on preventing terrible crimes rather than simply responding with more violence.

The end of the year is also a time for looking back. Fortunately, this is also the time of year when the Death Penalty Information Center releases its year-end report, which provides a lot of good data. This year’s version reveals the geographically arbitrary (and increasingly isolated) nature of capital punishment in the U.S. In 2012, death sentences and executions maintained their historically low levels, and only nine states actually carried out an execution.  In fact, the majority of U.S. states have not carried out an execution in the last five years. Just four states were responsible for around three-fourths of the country’s executions, and four states issued about two thirds of U.S. death sentences.


Too Much Racial Justice In North Carolina?


In a victory over racial bias in the death penalty, Marcus Robinson's death sentence was reduced to life in prison in April 2012.

North Carolina lawmakers are trying to gut the historic Racial Justice Act.

When North Carolina passed the Racial Justice Act (RJA), it was a beautiful moment. A state with a long history of racism was vowing to face that legacy head on, by honestly confronting racial bias in death penalty cases.  I grew up in North Carolina and, believe me, this was needed.  It was also a remarkable political achievement and it made me proud to be from there.

Then the law, which allows the use of statistical evidence to prove racial bias in capital cases, was applied.

In the case of Marcus Robinson, a North Carolina judge found that “race was a materially, practically and statistically significant factor” in jury selection at Robinson’s trial, and that statistics showed widespread racial bias in other capital cases across the state at the same time. Robinson’s death sentence was reduced to life without parole.


Race And Criminal Justice: A New Hope?


Marcus Robinson will not be executed but instead spend the rest of his life in prison after a judge ruled that his death sentence was tainted by racial discrimination.

Our justice system has a racial bias problem, both in the way it treats suspects, and the way it treats victims.

The cases of Troy Davis and Trayvon Martin underscore this.  If the races were reversed would Troy Davis’ execution have been pursued so relentlessly, would he even have received a death sentence, would police have been so quick to ignore other potential suspects?

And, had the races been reversed, wouldn’t the reaction to Trayvon Martin’s killing have been … different?

But knowing there is racial bias and doing something about it are two different things.  In North Carolina, something is being done.


Will North Carolina Halt Executions?

Following the release of a devastatingly critical report on the shoddy work of North Carolina’s State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) crime labs, Seth Edwards, the president of the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys today said he “supported a moratorium on the execution of any death-row inmates whose cases include evidence from the State Bureau of Investigations crime labs.”

The fallout from the audit of the SBI, combined with the fact that 152 death row inmates in NC are now challenging their death sentences under the new Racial Justice Act, paints a picture of criminal justice and capital punishment systems in chaos.  And that may be a good thing.  At least the Tar Heel state (unlike some states)  has been somewhat willing to look critically at its systems of justice.   

But this bout of self-examination should only be the beginning.  The state’s investigation of the SBI was not comprehensive (only the serology lab was looked into; the SBI’s performance in other areas – fingerprints, DNA , ballistics, drug analysis, documents and digital – has yet to be reviewed).  The Raleigh News and Observer’s recent hard hitting series provides some idea of what might be found if all those rocks were turned over.  To their credit, NC DAs have demanded a full audit of the SBI.  

Because executing someone wrongfully would be the ultimate injustice, it is imperative that NC take a second look at all death row cases, including those who have already been executed.   Seth Edwards’ suggestion for a partial moratorium is fine, but really all executions should be halted.  And really, they should be halted permanently.

Racial Justice in North Carolina: UPDATE

Today, North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue signed the Racial Justice Act into law, making North Carolina only the second state in the country to allow death row prisoners to meaningfully challenge their death sentences if racial bias is evident.  (Kentucky is the only other state that has adopted similar provisions.)

As discussed in my previous post, race (particularly race of the victim) has been a major factor in who does and does not get death sentences in North Carolina, and 35 inmates on North Carolina’s death row were put there by all-white juries

It is good to see a southern state like North Carolina take such a leadership role in directly confronting its legacy of racism and going the extra mile to ensure that its justice system (or at least its capital punishment system) is no longer infected with racial bias. The 33 other death penalty states, both northern and southern, should follow North Carolina and Kentucky’s lead; racial bias in the death penalty is a national problem.

Racial Justice in North Carolina

On July 15th the North Carolina House voted 61-54 to approve the Racial Justice Act, which, if signed into law, would allow death row prisoners in the state to appeal their sentences if racial prejudice played a role in their sentencing.   Last night, the North Carolina Senate approved the legislation, which now goes to Governor Bev Perdue for her signature.

The Racial Justice Act could be a very significant step towards ensuring that race does not affect the fate of capital defendants in North Carolina—a state with a history of racial prejudice, where race has been a factor in death penalty cases in the past.  A 2001 study conducted by Dr. Isaac Unah and Prof. Jack Boger from the University of North Carolina showed that the probability of a defendant receiving the death penalty in North Carolina is 3.5 time higher if the murder victim was white.   In some parts of the state the findings were even more disturbing.  For instance, in Durham County, prosecutors were 5 times less likely to seek the death penalty if both the defendant and the murder victim were black than if the defendant was black but the murder victim was white.   

A review by the Winston Salem Journal found similar racial discrepancies in the application of North Carolina’s death penalty.  The Journal discovered that, although the majority of murder victims in North Carolina are black, only 18 percent of the state executions carried out between 1984 and the present were of prisoners whose victims were African-American.  In contrast, four fifths of the executions were of prisoners whose victims were white.  

Another way race has played a role in death penalty cases in North Carolina (as well as across the country) has been though jury selection.  Although African-Americans constitute more than one fifth of North Carolina’s total population, between 1977 and the present 35 defendants in the state have received death sentences from all-white juries.   

In light of these discrepancies and the unequal application of capital punishment in North Carolina, passage of the Racial Justice Act is a milestone achievement.   The legislation has gained the support of clergy and civil rights leaders who have described it as “a clear signal that we are serious about removing any vestiges of racial discrimination in the administration of the death penalty.”  In a joint statement published on the website of the North Carolina NAACP Chapter, the leaders went on to say that the Racial Justice Act has the potential to “make North Carolina a leader in the southeast on a matter of great importance to anyone who believes justice should be color blind.”

All that is needed now is the Governor’s signature.