Pictured from left to right in the front row: Levon “Bo” Jones, Jonathan Hoffman, Glen Edward Chapman, and Darryl Hunt who served a combined total of over 61 years for crimes they did not commit. Hones, Hoffman and Chapmen were on North Carolina’s death row and all three were exonerated between December 2007 and May 2008. A single juror prevented Hunt from receiving a death sentence. (Photo by Jack Payden-Travers)
In 2009 North Carolina blazed a trail by becoming the first state to pass a Racial Justice Act in response to evidence of bias in death penalty cases, including jurors admitting racial bigotry and the exonerations of three African-American death row inmates in the preceding three years. The intent of the law was to ensure that if North Carolina is to have a death penalty, every effort is made to ensure that racial bias plays no role in that system.
A series of groundbreaking cases filed in response to the Act exposed systemic racial bias in North Carolina’s capital sentencing. At trial attorneys showed strong evidence of intentional efforts by prosecutors across the state to exclude black jurors from capital trials. As a result, four death sentences were reduced by a judge to life in prison without parole. The ruling in the first of the four cases is currently on appeal before the North Carolina Supreme Court.
Despite a successful effort to amend the Racial Justice Act and reduce its scope in the 2012, many North Carolina prosecutors and their allies convinced a majority of elected legislators to repeal the law in its entirety after three defendants continued to win claims under the amended law. Gov. Pat McCrory recently signed the full repeal of the landmark law.
Repeal of the Racial Justice Act is one of a number of significant actions taken by conservative legislators in North Carolina this year. The Rev. Dr. William Barber II, President of the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, launched a Moral Monday movement to protest the wave of regressive legislation in NC, including the repeal of the Racial Justice Act.
The protests draw thousands of North Carolinians each week, and to date over 600 ministers, teachers, politicians, and civil rights leaders have been arrested in these nonviolent protests.
Tarrah Callahan, Executive Director of the North Carolina Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, summarized repeal with a story. During the repeal debate, a freshman legislator commented: “Even though I’m new here, I understand that there was evidence of racial bias when the legislature adopted the Racial Justice Act. Subsequent court cases confirmed this bias. So why are we reversing the law now given all of this evidence?”
During the 2010 elections for the state legislature, Tarrah said that many candidates used “viciously racist electoral materials the likes of which had not been seen here in decades” against those who voted for the Racial Justice Act.
“It’s a real tragedy,” Tarrah commented, “that legislators want to speed up executions rather than address the very real problems in our criminal justice system.” She explained that in addition to the documented racial bias unearthed by the Racial Justice Act, there are a host of outstanding issues with the death penalty in North Carolina– including continued litigation regarding executions in North Carolina, the use of tainted evidence from the state crime lab, and claims of actual innocence that have never been fully investigated.
By repealing the Racial Justice Act, the legislature has revoked the right to sue from 150 death row inmates under a valid law. Tarrah said that this action as a “blatant violation of their due process rights” and adds yet another basis for challenging capital convictions.
Rather than speed up executions, Tarrah remarked that “the legislature has added another layer of litigation to an already overburdened court system. They have done nothing but created a bigger mess for taxpayers.”
Ironically, in their haste to speed up executions and turn a blind eye to issues of racial bias within the system, the repeal of the Racial Justice Act is more likely to create further delays as these issues must be sorted out by North Carolina courts.