The Racial Justice Act, only the second of its kind in the United States, has given inmates sentenced to death in North Carolina a potential route to relief. As of today, 114 death row inmates there have filed motions asserting their sentences were tainted by racial bias. While the individual circumstances in each case differ dramatically, from domestic violence to at least one case of serial murders, if they can prove they received the death penalty due in part to racial bias, they will see their death sentence converted the life in prison.
If you ask nearly anyone educated in or merely informed about the practices of the criminal justice system in the United States, they will agree that there are some major racial disparities at work. From the arrest stage to sentencing, all are not treated equally within in the system. Getting the system itself to recognize this, however, and then take steps to correct it is a completely different story. Although legislation aimed at leveling the playing field is rarely written let alone passed, the Racial Justice Act managed to clear the Senate floor in, of all places, a southern state last year, making North Carolina second only to Kentucky, whose similar law is less comprehensive.
The passing of this Act required lawmakers to not only admit race was a factor in some death penalty cases, but also that protective measures should be taken to prevent it from being a factor in the future. Governor Bev Perdue said at the time, "the act ensures that when North Carolina hands down our state's harshest punishment to our most heinous criminals, the decision is based on the facts and the law, not racial prejudice." Perhaps not surprisingly, the vote to pass the Act was not completely overwhelming with 25 in the legislature voting for and 18 voting against the measure.
Although the Act was passed a year ago, it is once again making headlines and stirring controversy among opponents. The comments on local news sites are overflowing with statements about "just desserts" and "eye for an eye". But what they fail to realize is that only a very small fraction of murderers are ever sentenced to death. It is saved for the worst of the worst, the particularly heinous and grizzly crimes. Using skin color to determine just how heinous a crime is plainly doesn't make sense. However, it seems that's exactly what's happened in some cases.
A study released last month revealed that in North Carolina, someone accused of killing a white person is about three times more likely to be sentenced to death than one whose victim is black. A previous study, in 2001, found that number to be even higher at 3.5. You don't have to do a scientific study to see that these cases, with white victims, are also far more likely to get greater media coverage and more community outrage overall. In addition, 31 of the 159 death row inmates in North Carolina were sentenced by all white juries, a throwback to trials nearly a century ago.
No one is challenging the convictions of these death row inmates. While statistics may show that the likelihood of an innocent on death row is highly plausible--that isn't at issue here. What is at issue is fair treatment within the justice system. So, when people question why 114 inmates have challenged their sentences, the answer is quite simple: they are fighting for their lives in a system that may not have valued them equally.