Over the last couple of days the Conference of District Attorneys (DAs) have been pushing the North Carolina State Senate to repeal the Racial Justice Act – a law passed in 2009 to allow death row inmates and capital defendants the ability to challenge their sentence of death if they can show that race played a substantial role in the sentence. If a defendant successfully makes this claim, he will be resentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The timing of the DAs call for a repeal of the RJA is suspect at best. After repeated requests to push back the first RJA hearing, scheduled in the Marcus Robinson case in Cumberland County to start this week but pushed back to late January, the local DAs then tried to have the Judge, one of only a handful of African American superior court judges in North Carolina, removed from the case for specious reasons. When that effort failed, the Conference of DAs began an all-out assault on the RJA, starting with a misleading letter to the leader of the Senate, Senator Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) and following up on that with a press conference asking the Senate to pass SB 9 – a bill that passed the House and awaits a straight up or down vote on the Senate floor - which openly states it is a repeal of the Racial Justice Act. It would seem that the DAs will stop at nothing to prevent any of the defendants who filed an RJA claim from having his day in court. The suspicious timing of the call to repeal and the fear emanating from the Conference of DAs did not miss the attention of the legislative architects of the Racial Justice Acts or the organizations like the ACLU-NC that helped get it passed. Today those organizations and legislators held a press conference to push back against the DAs false claims and ask that the Senate not repeal the Racial Justice Act.
The DAs claimed that they are for racial justice but that the RJA is really just a quagmire. Representative Rick Glazier (D – Cumberland County) pointed out that there is evidence that the race of the victim plays a substantial role in death penalty cases and that a recent study out of Michigan State University of North Carolina's capital cases over the last decade showed that qualified African American jurors were struck at twice the rate of white jurors. He suggested that DAs are really just trying to stop the process from going forward on Marcus Robinson’s case in Cumberland County. The DAs have repeatedly said that the RJA claims are baseless, but again, Senator Floyd McKissick (D – Durham County) responded by asking, if that is the case, why are the DAs so afraid to let the process move forward? If the claims are baseless, the court will dismiss them with no harm done. In fact, Minority Leader Senator Martin Nesbitt (D – Buncombe County) stated at the press conference that he hopes the claims are dismissed after the appropriate hearings in the cases are held because it will mean that the judicial system has been operating correctly all along. Senator Nesbitt pointed out that in the last decade seven men have been released from death row after evidence proved them to be innocent of the crime for which they were convicted, but only after each man had spent years in prison. Where would we be, he asked, if nobody came behind and gave these cases a second look?
Commenting for the defense bar, Dick Taylor of the Advocates for Justice today said that the Racial Justice Act is a declaration that the state of North Carolina will not seek or impose the death penalty because of race. Please call your Senator today and ask that she or he oppose SB 9 or any other attempts to repeal or amend the Racial Justice Act.