Yesterday the North Carolina Senate and House voted to override Gov. Beverly Perdue’s veto of Senate Bill 416, the state’s Racial Justice Act repeal bill. This was the second attempt, after a failed effort last year, to override the legislation that allowed death-row inmates to petition to reduce their sentences to life without parole by using statistical proof of racial bias in their prosecution, sentencing, or jury selection.
The Open Society Foundations’ U.S. Programs has invested in North Carolina for death penalty abolition and reform work and supported the political and civic engagement of historically marginalized communities, including African Americans, Latinos, and immigrants. Open Society Foundations’ grantee, Reverend Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, described last night’s action:
We live in a state where seven men have been exonerated from death row, who would have been murdered by the state if the system had only worked faster. Five are black, one is Latino, and one is white. ALL were charged with the murders of white victims... Criminal justice enforcement is only strengthened when the system confronts racial bias directly and attempts to rid it from its practices.
The future of 150 North Carolina death penalty cases, filed in accordance with the vetoed NC RJA of 2009, remain uncertain. In a recent groundbreaking decision, Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks of Cumberland County, North Carolina found that race and racial bias played a role in the death sentence of Marcus Robinson. The decision led to the immediate converting of Robinson’s death sentence to life without the possibility of parole. The ruling was the first to test the NC RJA of 2009. With the RJA of 2009 now repealed, capital litigators are uncertain if North Carolina courts will uphold Weeks’ ruling in future cases.
Opponents of the NC RJA acted in opposition to Weeks’ ruling. In addition, Michigan State University School of Law experts analyzed jury selection in the cases of 173 death row inmates in North Carolina and found that black jurors were more likely to be struck from North Carolina jury pools.
The repeal of the Racial Justice Act in North Carolina is a reminder that social justice is never static. As advocates we need tenacity and vigilance when engaged in changing long-held practices. As Americans embark upon our celebration of this country’s 236th birthday, we should reflect upon the long struggle and fundamental contradiction of a society that strives for equality while supporting the most discriminatory actions. That North Carolina was able to pass the Racial Justice Act in 2009 speaks to a struggle within our culture: a culture that wants to limit our ability to address race and advance justice but at the same time, provides space and opportunity to challenge politically motivated discrimination and strive for equality and dignity for all.
Despite the veto of the RJA in North Carolina, civil rights organizations, murder victims’ family members, death penalty groups, and even law enforcement allies around the country are poised to seek change. Advocates in states like California, Maryland, Kansas, Colorado, and Montana are moving forward to highlight the irrevocably broken death penalty system and end an arbitrary and discriminatory system of punishment.