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.

Inmate ordered off death row in North Carolina

Clinton Smith, a man sentenced to die in 1998 for the death of his daughter, was ordered off death row last week by state Supreme Court judge John Jolly, Jr.  Mr. Smith cannot read or write and has an IQ of less than 70.  He was found to be mentally retarded and, therefore, ineligible for the death penalty, according to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2002 ruling in Atkins v. Virginia.   His sentence was changed to life in prison. 

The question remains, however, as to why Mr. Smith’s death sentence was not lessened six years ago after the Court ruled that executing the mentally retarded was cruel and unusual.  And how many other mentally retarded inmates await execution despite a Supreme Court ruling intended to protect them?  Unfortunately, justice for these inmates may be tied up in subjective definitions of “mental retardation”.  Each state has its own definition, many relying on vague qualifiers such as “subaverage general intellectual functioning” and “deficits in adaptive behavior”.  Many also rely on IQ scores, with one point meaning the difference between life and death.