The unwarranted assault on the Racial Justice Act

The unwarranted assault on the Racial Justice Act

- in Progressive Voices

The North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys recently launched an all-out assault on the state’s newly implemented Racial Justice Act. Sadly, the attack came before the fledgling law (which was designed to prevent the state putting someone to death because of racial bias) has even had a chance to prove its value.

As the first hearing in a Racial Justice Act claim approached, the DAs adopted a resolution, held a press conference, and sent a letter to legislative leaders desperately crying for the repeal of the law.

The timing is curious to say the least, but even more suspect are the justifications advanced for why the law ought to be repealed.

It is particularly strange and disappointing that the first argument the DA’s have made is that some of the death row inmates making a claim under the Racial Justice Act are white. After all, the whole point of the Racial Justice Act is an acknowledgement that race has played a role in the criminal justice system and that North Carolinians will not allow the State to seek or impose the death penalty based on race. The Racial Justice Act is about fairness and fair is fair. Would the DA’s have the law discriminate against white defendants by barring them from making a claim?

Besides which, the argument ignores the recent results of a thorough study conducted by researchers at Michigan State University College of Law of North Carolina’s capital punishment system which found that in almost every case prosecutors struck qualified African American jurors at a disproportionate rate.

However, it is the remaining arguments in favor of repeal that are truly disingenuous. The DA’s argue that the cost of the Act is prohibitive and that litigating Racial Justice Act claims will backlog the court system. Both arguments are patently false.

In fact, there is only one Racial Justice Act hearing proceeding at this time – in Cumberland County where the DA’s have been falling over themselves to avoid a hearing on the merits of the claim. The actual expenses of litigation to this point could have been minimized, but have actually been exacerbated by prosecutors demanding that they receive “hard copies” of discovery materials instead of digital copies and stalling in proceedings while most of the defendants’ experts have not been charging fees at all.

But that isn’t what makes these arguments so disingenuous. If the DA’s truly cared about costs and efficiency in the criminal justice system, they would be lobbying the North Carolina General Assembly for repeal of capital punishment instead of to repeal the Racial Justice Act. In fact, if the Governor were to commute the sentences of all the inmates on death row to life in prison without the possibility of parole, the Racial Justice Act hearings would cease and there would be no question about where death row inmates would be spending the rest of their lives. Why aren’t the DA’s lobbying the Governor and the General Assembly for that cost-saving policy change?

A recent study found that the capital punishment system costs the state millions of dollars – money that could be invested in caring for victims and to help bolster an “already under-funded and overburdened system” as the DAs described the criminal justice system in their letter to legislative leadership. The arguments in that letter are clearly a brazen façade, but one has to wonder just what exactly the district attorneys in this state are so afraid of.

Sarah Preston is the Policy Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina.