On Monday, June 28th 2012, the Republican-led North Carolina legislature voted to repeal Governor Perdue’s veto of the newly amended 2012 Racial Justice Act. The legislature attempted to amend the 2009 Act during the previous legislative session, but failed to obtain enough votes to override the Democratic Governor’s veto. This time, five Democrats veered away from party lines to enable the veto to be overridden.
The Racial Justice Act, passed in 2009, enabled death row prisoners to challenge their sentences if they can prove that race was a significant factor to seek or impose capital punishment. A prisoner could show that race was a significant factor based on the race of the defendant, the race of the victim, or in the use of peremptory jury strikes. The statute specifically provided that statistical evidence was acceptable in proving discrimination had occurred. Additionally, the 2009 Act provided no requirement for evidence of intentional discrimination in the prisoner’s own trial. Therefore, if the prisoner was able to show that race was a significant factor in imposing the death penalty in the relevant county, prosecutorial district, judicial division, or state, relief would be granted to the individual prisoner raising the claim. Finally, the 2009 Act mandated that if the prisoner was successful in proving his claim of racial discrimination, the death sentence should be automatically vacated and the judge should impose a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Nearly all of North Carolina’s death row prisoners had filed appeals under the 2009 Act. The first successful case was brought on April 20, 2012 where Judge Gregory Weeks ruled that Marcus Robinson had successfully proven, using statistical and practical evidence, that the prosecution used racially motivated peremptory strikes in his trial. Robinson utilized a statistical analysis from professors at Michigan State University that showed patterns of disparate jury selection in Robinson’s own trial, the county, the district, the division, and the state. As the statute required, Judge Weeks commuted Robinson’s death sentence to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
The 2012 Racial Justice Act, however, highlights the new intentions of the legislature that found the necessary votes to override the Governor’s veto. While most Democrats and advocacy groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union looked at the 2009 Act as an opportunity to combat the racial biases inherent in capital sentencing, Republicans saw the 2009 Act as an attempt at a moratorium on North Carolina’s capital punishment system.
In the 2012 Act, Republicans raised the burden placed on the prisoner to ensure that less death sentences would be invalidated. For example, under the 2012 Act, prisoners cannot solely rely on statistical evidence to prove racial discrimination. Additionally, prisoners must prove intent of racial discrimination in their own individual case to qualify for relief. These two requirements taken together require the court to look at instances of discrimination on an isolated basis of the individual case rather than in the context of what might be sweeping patterns of discrimination over decades. Forcing courts to examine such a narrow snapshot of evidence is going to allow pervasive discriminatory tactics to continue in the capital sentencing process.
Four North Carolina prisoners who were sentenced to death before 2009 have challenged their sentences under the 2009 Act alleging that the death sentences were wrongly sought based on their race. The prisoners’ attorneys recognize the drastic changes from the 2009 Act to the 2012 Act, and they have all filed motions with the court requesting to brief their appeals under both Acts, hoping to salvage any chance they might have of obtaining a ruling under the 2009 Act. Judge Gregory Weeks, the same judge that heard the Robinson case, will be hearing all of the appeals.
Junior Blog Editor, Criminal Law Brief