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Racial Justice Act Passes First Test

Posted on in Racial Justice

Yesterday, a Forsyth County court found that the Racial Justice Act was constitutional. The law, passed in 2009 by the NCGA, allows a capital defendant to challenge just his sentence if he can prove that race played a substantial role in his receiving the death penalty. Prosecutors defending the use of capital punishment in two cases where RJA claims were brought tried to argue that the RJA was unconstitutionally broad and vague, but the court found that the law was within the North Carolina General Assembly’s powers as a way to address racial bias in the capital punishment system. The Racial Justice Act has overcome it’s first hurtle and the court will now start to hear arguments about whether race did play a role in these two cases.

While this is a great victory, the RJA’s days may be numbered as the new legislative leadership has indicated a desire to repeal the RJA or amend it so that it will not serve its purpose of addressing racial disparities in how death is meted out by the state. Ongoing work to defend and protect the Racial Justice Act will be necessary. Call your state Representative and Senator and ask them not to support attempts to tinker with the Racial Justice Act!

First Racial Justice Act Motions Filed

Posted on in Racial Justice

The first motions on behalf of death row inmates under the Racial Justice Act (RJA) were filed this week. RJA was passed by the North Carolina General Assembly in 2009 after three years of effort and was signed into law by Governor Perdue on August 11, 2009. The portion of the law dealing with people already convicted of capital crimes requires that their motions be filed by August 10th, 2010. Five death row inmates filed motions claiming racial bias on Tuesday backed by a comprehensive study of North Carolina's capital sentencing conducted by Michigan State University.

The study found that over 40% of the defendants on N.C.'s death row were sentenced to die by juries with 1 or no people of color on them. It also found that prosecutors struck qualified African American jurors at twice the rate that white jurors were struck. Three of the five death row inmates that filed RJA claims on Tuesday had all white juries and the other two had only 1 or 2 persons of color on their juries.

The MSU study also found that in cases with at least one white victim, the defendant was 2.6 times more likely to be sentenced to death. All five of the defendants that filed on Tuesday were convicted of killing white victims. If any of these defendants is able to prove that racial bias played a substantial role in them receiving a death sentence, they will be resentenced to life in prison without parole.

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On Tuesday, August 11th Session officially adjourned for 2009. The North Carolina House and Senate will reconvene on May 12, 2010 at 12 noon.

On Monday evening, the House concurred in the Senate's amended version of HB 1261 Protect Our Kids/ Cyber Bullying Misdemeanor. While the ACLU-NC was able to secure a number of changes to the bill, there are still very real free speech concerns about the bill as passed. The bill makes it a class 1 or 2 misdemeanor, depending on the accused's age, to send repeated communications to a minor, or to post real or doctored photos or post private or personal info about a minor with the intent to intimidate or torment the minor. While some of the more objectionable provisions - prohibiting communications that embarrass the minor or sending repeated insults to or about a minor - were removed by the Senate, the bill is still too vague. The Constitution demands that, in the area of free speech, the law be clear enough so that individuals are on notice of what communications violate the statute and must not permit or encourage arbitrary or discriminatory enforcement. By not defining "intimidate" or "torment," the law gives unfettered discretion to law enforcement officers to determine what those terms mean to them. In the area of speech making sure that laws are clear is especially important so that people can easily discern the distinction between criminal activity and the exercise of fundamental constitutional rights.

However, on the bright side, Governor Perdue signed the Racial Justice Act in to law on Tuesday during a public signing ceremony. The new law will allow capital defendants and death row inmates the opportunity to challenge the sentence of death if they can show that race played a substantial role in them being tried capitally or being sentenced to death. If the judge agrees that race played a substantial role, she or he may reduce the sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole.