The North Carolina Racial Justice Act
By Kurt R. Willems
Published on November 25, 2011
The purpose of the RJA is to ensure that “No person shall be subject to or given a sentence of death . . . that was sought or obtained on the basis of race.” If a defendant successfully shows in a hearing before a judge, with statistical evidence or testimony, that race was a “significant factor” in either the prosecutor’s decision to seek the death penalty or in the jury’s determination to sentence the defendant to death, then the defendant is entitled to have his sentence reduced from death to life imprisonment without parole. There are no other sentencing choices for the judge. The defendant never leaves prison for the rest of his or her life (a conviction of first degree murder committed with a statutorily prescribed aggravating circumstance present is only eligible for either death or life without parole in North Carolina).
Any criminal justice system that provides different sentences to different defendants when the circumstances and severity of their crimes are the same or very similar delegitimizes the process and subjects its citizens to arbitrary punishment in violation of sound criminal justice principles and our state and federal Constitution.
The Racial Justice Act seeks to balance things out. If a white defendant who commits murder would get a sentence of life without parole then a black who commits a murder under the same or similar circumstances in a different case should receive the same punishment. The same equality in sentencing is true if the victim was white versus black. Thus, the Racial Justice Act allows a judge to eliminate the death sentence and mandate life without parole. The white and black defendants receive the same sentence for the same type of crime, creating fairness and equality when dealing with the ultimate and irreversible punishment that our state provides.
What the comprehensive, state-wide study, which examined 5800 cases from 1990 to 2009, revealed were some startling statistics. First, qualified blacks were excluded from capital juries disproportionately from their white peers. More than 40% of our state’s death row population was tried by an all white jury or a jury which had only one black member. Whether this happened deliberately or not, we do not know and is inconsequential. We do know that this is a statistical fact which raises serious issues of legitimacy when evaluating the North Carolina jury selection process in capital cases.
Second, in cases where there was at least one white victim, the defendant was 2.6 times more likely to be sentenced to death than if no victims were white. If “Equal Justice Under Law,” which is inscribed on the U.S. Supreme Court building and codified in the 14th Amendment, is to have any meaning then we must ensure that everyone’s life is equal in value regardless of race. If justice is giving a defendant life without parole for killing a black while giving the death penalty when the victim was white, then we have no system of justice at all.
Currently, the NC Racial Justice Act is under intense political scrutiny. Whether it will remain valid law and provide an avenue of relief for racial discrimination in capital cases has yet to be realized.
Kurt Willems is a criminal defense attorney in North Carolina and served on the staff of the NC Racial Justice Act study.
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