The first motions on behalf of death row inmates under the Racial Justice Act (RJA) were filed this week. RJA was passed by the North Carolina General Assembly in 2009 after three years of effort and was signed into law by Governor Perdue on August 11, 2009. The portion of the law dealing with people already convicted of capital crimes requires that their motions be filed by August 10th, 2010. Five death row inmates filed motions claiming racial bias on Tuesday backed by a comprehensive study of North Carolina's capital sentencing conducted by Michigan State University.
The study found that over 40% of the defendants on N.C.'s death row were sentenced to die by juries with 1 or no people of color on them. It also found that prosecutors struck qualified African American jurors at twice the rate that white jurors were struck. Three of the five death row inmates that filed RJA claims on Tuesday had all white juries and the other two had only 1 or 2 persons of color on their juries.
The MSU study also found that in cases with at least one white victim, the defendant was 2.6 times more likely to be sentenced to death. All five of the defendants that filed on Tuesday were convicted of killing white victims. If any of these defendants is able to prove that racial bias played a substantial role in them receiving a death sentence, they will be resentenced to life in prison without parole.
But the victory of the passage of RJA is about more than who filed these motions or who may file for relief under RJA in the coming days. The MSU study clearly shows that race is a real factor in how the sentence of death is handed down in this state. Whether it be the race of the victims or the race of the jurors, the sad fact is that racial bias is clearly affecting our capital punishment system. Despite the results of this study, opponents of the RJA - who never supported it - are already on the attack, criticizing the new law and those who are filing under it. It is truly disappointing that in the face of real evidence of racial bias in the system, there are some who would keep it as is. North Carolinians should be proud that our legislators choose to lead the way in facing up to this reality and sought a way to address the role of race in our capital system with the RJA.