Tuesday, September 21, 2010

95% on NC Death Row Request Racial Bias Review

Nathan Koppel of the Wall Street Journal recently wrote and interesting article on the Racial Justice Act adopted in North Carolina. The law affords death row inmates an opportunity to have their sentence reviewed for racial bias. Below are excerpts from the article.

Last year, North Carolina enacted what's known as the Racial Justice Act, requiring judges to let any inmate off death row if the judge finds that race was a "significant factor" in the death sentence.

About 95% of the state's death-row population, or 152 inmates, filed bias claims by the August deadline, according to the North Carolina attorney general's office. The law also allows future capital-murder defendants to claim racial bias. Convicts whose petitions were successful would instead face life sentences, with no chance of parole.

North Carolina's new law is among the most hotly debated responses to recent criticism of the death penalty. Many states have rethought the sentence amid new genetic evidence that has freed some inmates.

Maryland has suspended its use of the death penalty while it reviews whether lethal injection causes undue pain; Texas last year passed a law to improve legal representation in death-penalty appeals. New Jersey and New Mexico in recent years abolished the death penalty.

North Carolina has undertaken the most far-reaching effort to date to examine the amorphous question of whether race played an improper role in decisions to seek or impose death sentences.

It likely will be several months before any of the claims are considered by the courts, attorneys said.

"There are so many variables that can legitimately affect a prosecutor's decision to seek the death penalty, including the seriousness of an offense," said Christopher Slobogin, a death-penalty expert at Vanderbilt University Law School. "This will be a messy enterprise."

Other states could follow North Carolina's lead. Legislation is pending in Pennsylvania to allow death sentences to be challenged on the grounds of racial bias. A similar bill was introduced this year in California, though it was defeated because of concerns it would cost too much to administer, said a spokeswoman for Democratic California state senator Gilbert Cedillo, who introduced it.

Many prosecutors are concerned that the new law allows murder defendants to try to prove bias through broad statistical evidence, such as data showing that North Carolina prosecutors, on a county-wide or state-wide basis, have sought the death penalty more frequently against black defendants or in cases involving a white victim. "You shouldn't try a case on statistics," said Sarah Stevens, a North Carolina Republican legislator. "Statistics can be manipulated."

Most bias claims cite two recent studies from Michigan State University College of Law. One study found that in more than 1,500 cases between 1990 and 2009, North Carolina defendants of all races were more than twice as likely to be sentenced to death if at least one of their alleged victims was white.

Another study concluded that in the cases of the 159 people currently on death row in the state, prosecutors removed blacks from juries at more than twice the rate that they struck prospective nonblack jurors.

To read more: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704362404575479793817782142.html?mod=WSJ_WSJ_US_News_5

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