Raleigh, NC – The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of North Carolina today urged North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue to veto a bill passed earlier this week repealing the state’s historic Racial Justice Act (RJA), which gives prisoners on death row the chance to argue their sentences were the result of racial bias.
In a letter to the governor, the ACLU argues the act, passed by the state legislature and signed into law by Perdue in 2009, is essential to ensuring defendants receive the constitutional guarantees of due process and equal protection under the law. The letter also argues there is no chance any current death row prisoner would go free as a result of a successful challenge of their sentence under the law, as state prosecutors have wrongly warned and says there is no evidence to suggest implementation of the law has thus far proved a burden upon the state’s court system.
“To abandon the RJA now, before any hearings under the fledgling law can be held would … put North Carolina in danger of executing a person based on race rather than the crime committed,” the ACLU’s letter reads.
The RJA allows North Carolina’s 157 death row prisoners a hearing in which they can present statistics and other evidence showing that death sentences, state- and county-wide, were tainted by race discrimination and that their death sentence should be commuted to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
State prosecutors in recent weeks have intensified their calls for repeal, unhappy with a recent Michigan State University study showing a significantly higher likelihood that prosecutors in North Carolina would eliminate potential African-American jurors, and that defendants in the state are more than twice as likely to be sentenced to death if the victim is white than if the victim is black. Prosecutors were also unsuccessful this month in an attempt to oust the African-American judge slated to oversee the first hearing held under the law.
The ACLU’s letter also debunks an argument put forth by opponents of the RJA that the law violates the ex post facto provision of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits imposing a harsher penalty against an individual than the punishment provided for by statute at the time a crime is committed.
“There is no danger either that the RJA violates the Constitution or that death row inmates may be released from prison should they successfully make a claim under the RJA,” the letter reads.