Race and the Death Penalty: Bill by Forsyth Legislators Aims at Disparities

James Romoser, Winston-Salem Journal, May 13, 2009

Two Democratic legislators from Winston-Salem are renewing their push for a bill that would allow defendants to challenge the application of the death penalty by citing statistical racial disparities in the overall use of capital punishment.

State Reps. Larry Womble and Earline Parmon argue that their bill is a matter of basic fairness. They say that it will help prevent racial discrimination in death-penalty cases.

Opponents of the bill, including the state’s prosecutors, say that it elevates what they say are ambiguous statistics over the particular facts of a case. And they worry that it will effectively end–or severely reduce–the use of the death penalty in North Carolina.

The bill, known as the N.C. Racial Justice Act, was approved yesterday by a 6-5 vote in a judiciary committee of the N.C. House. The full House is expected to vote on it today.

The bill would allow judges to overturn a death sentence if a defendant proved, by citing statistics from previous cases, that race played a significant factor in previous applications of the death penalty–either in that particular county, in that particular prosecutorial district or in the state as a whole.

A defendant could use statistics to try to show that race was a factor either in a prosecutor’s decision to pursue the death penalty or in a jury’s decision to impose it.

A prosecutor would likewise be able to present his own statistical evidence to try to rebut the defendant’s argument.

Both sides could also present other types of evidence, including testimony from attorneys, law-enforcement officers or even jurors who might testify as to whether race may have been a factor in past death-penalty decisions.

The push for the Racial Justice Act comes during a period of statewide reconsideration of capital punishment. Executions in North Carolina have been on hold for nearly three years because of various legal challenges. One of those challenges–involving the role of doctors in monitoring lethal injections–was settled this month by the N.C. Supreme Court.

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Republicans in the judiciary committee criticized the bill. They said that there aren’t enough death sentences in individual counties or prosecutorial districts to compile meaningful statistical samples. Last year, just one person in the entire state was added to death row.

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The two sides of the debate disagree on whether existing statistics demonstrate racial bias in the application of the death penalty.

For instance, blacks make up 22 percent of North Carolina’s population, but they make up 53 percent of the inmates on North Carolina’s death row. That statistic implies that blacks are vastly overrepresented on death row.

On the other hand, blacks make up 62 percent of all convicted murderers in the state’s prison system, according to statistics from the N.C. Department of Correction. Because the percentage of convicted murderers who are black is higher than the percentage of blacks who got the death penalty, those numbers could imply that blacks are underrepresented on death row.

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Keith [Tom Keith, the Forsyth County district attorney] called the bill “insulting,” because he said it assumes that prosecutors are pursuing the death penalty for racial reasons.

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Opponents of the death penalty have long argued that it is much more likely to be imposed in cases in which the defendant is black or the victim is white.

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