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 By July, the RJA had been gutted; next year it will probably be repealed entirely.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.
But the forces of enlightenment, who believe that exposing and confronting a problem like systemic racial bias is the first and most necessary step to making things better, are not going quietly. Judge Meeks ruled on three more cases last week, commuting all three sentences to life without parole and citing “the harm to African-American citizens and to the integrity of the justice system that results from racially discriminatory jury selection practices.”
As Amnesty International reports today, the international human rights community has for years been demanding that the U.S. account for persistent racial bias in capital punishment. In 2008, for example, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination expressed concern “about the persistent and significant racial disparities with regard to the imposition of the death penalty.” The U.S. response to such criticisms has been that the death penalty is a policy choice and decisions on its use are for politics and democracy to work out. Yet when the first political impulse is to hide racial bias, rather than deal with it, the continued use of the death penalty becomes even more pernicious.
As the Amnesty International report concludes: “While getting rid of this cruel and brutalizing punishment will not end discrimination or error in the criminal justice system, it will mean an end to cementing such injustices into permanence by execution.”