The North Carolina House of Representatives narrowly passed a bill yesterday that seeks to address racial disparities in the criminal justice system by allowing capital murder defendants and death row prisoners to challenge prosecutions based on evidence of racial bias. Only one other state – Kentucky – has a similar law.
Members of minority groups are disproportionately represented among DNA exonerees –70 percent of the 240 people exonerated with DNA after serving years for crimes they didn’t commit were people of color. Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld recently told the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund’s
Defenders Online blog
that racial bias and the possibility of cross-racial misidentification are both causes of wrongful conviction. Neufeld said:
It’s impossible to look at the racial breakdown of the people who have been exonerated through DNA testing and not see that our criminal justice system disproportionately impacts people of color. Digging deeper, most of the DNA exonerations are people of color who were wrongfully convicted of sexually assaulting white people. Two-thirds of the exoneration cases are cross-race sexual assaults, while the Department of Justice says that less than 15% of all rapes are cross-race. There’s a long history of the American criminal justice system treating the rape of a white woman by a black man as a particularly vile crime. One consequence of treating such crimes with particular zeal is that people of color will be wrongfully convicted more frequently.
The DNA exoneration cases also illustrate the intersection of race and class. In case after case, defendants could not afford top-quality lawyers to challenge prosecutors who often over-stepped the line to secure a conviction – and in the vast majority of cases, the defendants were people of color. Years later, when they are exonerated through DNA testing, they are released without adequate financial compensation and little or no services from the state.
More on the North Carolina bill from Facing South:
Specifically, the Racial Justice Act would allow defendants in death-penalty cases to use statistics to try to show that race played a factor in the application of the death penalty in their cases. If the statistics showed significant racial disparities in how the death penalty has been applied, a judge could block a prosecutor from pursuing the death penalty in that case, or overturn a jury's decision to impose a death sentence. It would also allow inmates currently on death row the opportunity to argue that their death sentences were racially motivated. If a death sentence were thrown out under the bill, it would be converted to a sentence of life in prison without parole.
The act is a landmark piece of legislation for a state where blacks make up 20 percent of the total population but 60 percent of those on death row. The timing is also critical as North Carolina continues to debate the future of capital punishment.
…The NC Racial Justice Act goes to a second vote in the state House today, and then it will move back to the state Senate, where it faces a difficult challenge. Observers expect the bill will go into conference committee, where House and Senate negotiators would try to work out a compromise bill that could pass in both chambers. The Senate previously approved a version of the Racial Justice Act in May, but it contained controversial clauses meant to resume the death penalty in North Carolina. Those clauses were later removed in the House.
Read the full article here
. (Facing South, 07/15/2009)