North Carolina takes a step backward

December 5, 2011

Trish Kahle reports on the impact of the drive to repeal the Racial Justice Act.

IN 2009, North Carolina took a big step forward toward addressing the rampant racism in the criminal injustice system by passing the Racial Justice Act, which allowed "people facing the death penalty to present evidence of racial bias, including statistics, in court," according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

The new statutes weren't considered by activists to be an end in themselves, but a step toward abolition of the death penalty in the state.

The Racial Justice Act was a much-needed law. A University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill study found that a person in North Carolina is 3.5 times more likely to receive the death penalty if convicted of killing a white person. "Those who kill whites are disproportionately represented on death row," said Jack Boger of the UNC Law School.

In one year (2007-2008), three men were exonerated from death row in the state. One of the men's trials also had an all-white jury. A juror even openly admitted his racial bias. The year 2004 saw the high-profile release of Darryl Hunt, who served 19 years for a rape and murder he did not commit. An Ohio State University study showed that the states that execute the most people are the states that also had the highest number of lynchings.

Perhaps the most telling statistic of all is this: Out of 157 people currently on death row in North Carolina, 154 of them have filed claims under the Racial Justice Act.

The Racial Justice Act provoked an uproar among the state's right wing, and since the 2010 elections, repealing the act has a been a priority of many lawmakers, right along with putting anti-LGBT bigotry in the state constitution and hiking university tuition as much as 44 percent. The arguments against the act are recycled racist lies--that it is unfair to recognize people of color as a specially oppressed group, and that death row prisoners are using the law to "cheat the system."

In response, Darryl Hunt, the exonerated death row inmate and abolitionist said, "If you think race didn't play a factor in my case, in my being arrested, charged and convicted, then you're not living here in North Carolina."

On November 28, the state Senate did indeed vote to repeal the Racial Justice Act, following a similar action by the state House. Gov. Bev Perdue could still veto it, but she has not indicated that she will do so. Although she supported the legislation in 2009, she has caved time after time to right-wing pressure--pressure that does not accurately reflect the politics or wishes of her constituents.

Perdue has also pushed to allow offshore drilling off the Outer Banks and has not taken a stand against discriminatory voting measures that would shorten the early voting period and redistrict the state to minimize the influence of Black and Latino voters. She also signed a bill into law requiring employers to use E-verify to prevent undocumented immigrants from gaining employment--this in a state that has the fastest growing Latino population in the country.

WHAT DOES repeal of the Racial Justice Act mean for death penalty abolitionists in North Carolina? Getting the state to admit that racism was a primary factor in many death penalty convictions was a huge step forward toward our eventual goal of a world without the death penalty.

But there were weaknesses in the law. While it allowed evidence of racial bias, it placed the burden of proof of that bias on the defendant, and did not guarantee removal from death row if the appeal was upheld. In addition, racial bias may not always be clearly evident.

Activists should be calling on Perdue to veto the repeal, but also making the case for a law that is more comprehensive and stands a better chance of overturning convictions--or better yet, full abolition.

The possibilities of pushing for more are greater today, too. Support for the death penalty is waning, with Illinois and Oregon getting rid of capital punishment altogether this year. And the rise of the Occupy movement this fall has brought a new generation of people into activist politics around all kinds of issues. They can be part of a struggle that demands real justice from the North Carolina justice system.

A version of this article was first published at I Can't Believe We Still Have to Protest This Shit.

Further Reading

From the archives