North Carolina

North Carolina

INNOCENCE: Faulty Practices Raise Doubts About Accuracy of Crime Labs

A recent article in the ABA Journal drew attention to problems in crime labs across the country that have resulted in  wrongful convictions, including some in death penalty cases. Investigations in many states and of the national FBI lab revealed a lack of written procedures, improper mixing of samples from different cases, improper testimony, and even falsification of test results. An Oklahoma City chemist who testified in 23 death penalty cases was later fired for giving false or misleading testimony. Twelve of the defendants in whose cases she had testified were executed. In North Carolina, an independent audit by two retired FBI agents showed that analysts at the state lab had regularly withheld or distorted evidence in more than 230 cases over a 16-year period, including three cases that resulted in executions. Some experts are pushing for better regulation of forensic labs. The National Academy of Sciences presented 13 recommendations in a 2009 report, including calling for the creation of an independent national institute of forensic science, and enforcement of accreditation and certification standards. Very few of the Academy's recommendations have been implemented. Paul Giannelli, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University, who has studied crime labs for 20 years, said forensic labs should be held to the same standards as clinical labs that conduct medical tests. "They're both a matter of life and liberty," he said.

RACE: Former Military Officials and Other Groups Ask North Carolina for Fairness in Jury Selection

A number of prominent groups have filed supportive briefs with the North Carolina Supreme Court asking that the practice of racial bias in selecting jurors for death penalty cases be ended. Former senior military officials, families of murder victims, and potential jurors denied the opportunity to serve because of their race were among those arguing that a ruling under the state's Racial Justice Act be upheld. In 2012, Judge Gregory Weeks held that Marcus Robinson's (pictured) trial was tainted with racial discrimination and that there was evidence of similar bias around the state. Statistical studies showed that qualified African Americans were struck from juries at more than twice the rate of whites. Potential black jurors were removed for such reasons as membership in the NAACP or attending an historically black university. Robinson’s death sentence was reduced to life, but the Racial Justice Act was recently repealed after the ruling. The state supreme court will review Judge Weeks' findings of bias. No briefs were filed by groups opposing the ruling in Robinson's case.

NEW VOICES: Former County GOP Chair Says Death Penalty Violates Conservative Values

Steve Monks, a former Durham County, North Carolina, GOP Chair, recently called for an end to the death penalty in the state. Earlier in June, legislators voted to repeal the Racial Justice Act, which had allowed death row inmates to challenge their sentences using statistical evidence of racial bias. Monks wrote in an op-ed in Plain Talk Politics that the most recent attempts to reform capital punishment in the state are strong indications that “the system will never work properly.” Monk encouraged conservative Republicans to reexamine the death penalty in light of the system’s additional costs compared to life without parole, the risks of wrongful executions, and its failure to bring closure to murder victims’ families. Monk concluded, “The time has come for conservatives here in North Carolina to ask ourselves if the death penalty really fits with our values. We all want a smaller, more efficient government that does not abuse its power, along with swift and sure justice… Let’s put an end to North Carolina’s seemingly endless death penalty debate by simply bringing our politics in line with our conservative principles – wasteful government programs that don’t work and go against our values should be ended.”  Read full op-ed below.

RECENT LEGISLATION: North Carolina Legislators Vote to Repeal Racial Justice Act

On June 5, legislators in North Carolina voted to repeal the Racial Justice Act, which had allowed death row inmates to challenge their sentences using statistical evidence of racial bias. Since the law took effect in 2009, most of the inmates facing execution in North Carolina appealed their sentence under the law. In 2012, Marcus Robinson, who was the first defendant to receive a hearing under the RJA, was re-sentenced to life without parole due to evidence of racial bias in jury selection. Rep. Darren Jackson expressed his disappointment at the repeal: “[W]e voted for the RJA because we wanted the death penalty to be applied uniformly, without regard to race. Be it the perpetrator, the victim, or an individual juror, race should play no part in the process.”  Governor Pat McCrory has said he will sign the repeal bill.

PUBLIC OPINION: Strong Majority of North Carolinians Prefer Life Without Parole Over the Death Penalty

NC Poll
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A recent poll conducted by Public Policy Polling indicated a strong majority of North Carolina residents prefer replacing the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole (LWOP), as long as some conditions are imposed. According to the survey, 68% of respondents support replacing the death penalty with LWOP if the offender had to work and pay restitution to the victim’s family. Sixty-three percent (63%) support repealing the death penalty if the money saved was redirected to effective crime fighting tools. And more than half (55%) of the respondents supported ending the death penalty if the money saved was redirected to solving cold cases and assisting victims of crime. Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling, noted the change occurring on this issue: “The days when the death penalty enjoyed near-universal support are clearly over," he said. "Across the country, poll after poll has shown that. These results show that people in North Carolina are willing to consider alternatives to capital punishment.” Read full results of the survey.

RACE: Three More Death Sentences Reduced in North Carolina Because of Bias in Jury Selection

On December 13, North Carolina Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks reduced the sentences of three death row inmates to life without parole after finding that race played a significant role in the selection of the juries in their cases. Applying North Carolina's revised Racial Justice Act, Judge Weeks relied partially on studies showing prosecutors struck qualified African-American jurors twice as often as other potential jurors, both in Cumberland County and statewide. He also relied on evidence presented earlier at a lengthy hearing showing that potential black jurors were often dismissed for reasons such as their reservations about the death penalty, criminal background, hardships, or employment, while white jurors with similar characteristics were selected. Evidence of racial bias was also shown in statements, notes, training materials, and testimony from the prosecutors. Evidence of trainings sponsored by the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys showed prosecutors were trained in fabricating legally acceptable ways to exclude African Americans from juries. Judge Weeks, who had reduced the death sentence of another inmate earlier in the year, stated: "The court finds no joy in these conclusions. Indeed, the court cannot overstate the gravity and somber nature of its findings. Nor can the court overstate the harm to African-American citizens and to the integrity of the justice system that results from racially discriminatory jury selection practices." Kenneth Rose, one of the lawyers representing the defendants, said, “The evidence that our capital punishment system is infected by racial bias has become too great to deny.... We will not rest until we are assured that race plays no role in North Carolina’s death penalty.”

SENTENCING: No Death Sentences in North Carolina for the First Time Since 1977

No new death sentneces were imposed in North Carolina in 2012, marking the first time since 1977 that this has occurred. The state had a record-low of four capital trials in 2012. Thomas Maher, executive director of North Carolina’s Indigent Defense Services, said, “In some ways, it’s a milestone. In other ways, it’s part of a trend.” In 2000, juries in the state presided at 57 capital trials, ultimately yielding 18 death sentences. In 2011, there were 12 capital trials resulting in 3 death sentences. North Carolina has not carried out an execution since 2006. This declining use of the death penalty is in line with a broader national trend. In 2011, there were 78 new death sentences in the U.S., a 75% drop from 1996, when 315 individuals were sentenced to death. It was the first time since 1976 that the country produced fewer than 100 death sentences in a single year.

Challenges to Jury Selection Continue under North Carolina's Racial Justice Act

On October 2, Judge Gregory Weeks heard testimony regarding racial bias in jury selection, as three North Carolina death row inmates challenged their sentences under the state's Racial Justice Act.  Prof. Barbara O’Brien of Michigan State University provided statistical evidence of racial bias in the frequent rejection of African-American potential jurors from death penalty trials in the state.  According to O'Brien's study, qualified black jurors were twice as likely to be dismissed from serving in North Carolina death penalty cases as non-black jurors. Her study analyzed jury selection patterns under both the Racial Justice Act of 2009 and the more restrictive version that lawmakers passed in 2012, since there is dispute over which version of the law applies to the defendants. O'Brien found racial bias under both standards and in the cases of the individual defendants.  Earlier in 2012, Judge Weeks had reduced Marcus Robinson's death sentence to life because of racial bias found in his case.

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