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NC Supreme Court Considers Racial Bias Claims in Death Penalty Cases

The Racial Justice Act, passed in 2009, allowed North Carolinians on death row to present evidence that racial bias played a role in their death sentences. The law was repealed in 2013. (Adobe Stock)
The Racial Justice Act, passed in 2009, allowed North Carolinians on death row to present evidence that racial bias played a role in their death sentences. The law was repealed in 2013. (Adobe Stock)
September 5, 2019

RALEIGH, N.C. – In the coming weeks, six North Carolinians currently on death row will find out if they will get new hearings and be re-sentenced to life without parole.

The defendants, including five men and one woman, maintain that racial bias played a role in their sentencing.

Back in 2009, state legislators passed the Racial Justice Act, a law allowing people on death row to petition to be re-sentenced to life without parole if they could prove that racial bias was a factor in a court's decision to pursue capital punishment.

In 2013, the law was repealed.

The state Supreme Court heard the defendants' cases last week, and David Weiss, an attorney for one of them, says the high court next will decide their fates.

"One of the main issues that's before the court now is whether people who have filed claims under the racial justice act can proceed with those claims," he states.

Weiss says it will be several months before the justices render a decision.

Among other evidence of discrimination, Weiss and a team of attorneys found systemically unfair practices of jury selection among prosecutors.

"We found rampant discrimination in the way that capital juries are selected,” he states. “Black citizens who are qualified to serve on capital juries are removed by prosecutors from those juries at incredibly disproportionate rates when you compare them to white jurors. "

Out of the six defendants, three were given death penalty sentences by all white juries.

Weiss points out that prosecutors often aren't required to provide any explanation for removing prospective jurors.

He says other states have abolished the death penalty on similar grounds.

"The Washington Supreme Court recently got rid of the death penalty because of evidence of racial bias,” he states. “The Connecticut Supreme Court over the past few years did likewise. So, that's absolutely one option that's available to the court."

According to the state Department of Public Safety, 142 people currently are on death row in North Carolina.

Disclosure: Center for Death Penalty Litigation contributes to our fund for reporting. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
Nadia Ramlagan, Public News Service - NC