North Carolina

North Carolina

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.

North Carolina Governor Vetoes Racial Justice Rollback Legislation

On June 28, North Carolina's Governor, Beverly Perdue, vetoed legislation that would have essentially repealed the state's Racial Justice Act (RJA), a law allowing death row inmates to challenge their death sentence based on statewide patterns of racial bias. The law Gov. Perdue vetoed would have removed the possibility of showing bias based on these sophisticated studies. The governor said, "As long as I am governor, I will fight to make sure the death penalty stays on the books in North Carolina. But it has to be carried out fairly — free of prejudice.”   Of the first ruling under the RJA, Gov. Perdue said, ”The judge's findings should trouble everyone who is committed to a justice system based on fairness, integrity, and equal protection under the law. Faced with these findings, the … General Assembly could have tried to strengthen our efforts to fix the flaws in our system. Willfully ignoring the pernicious effects of discrimination will not make those problems go away."  (Read Governor's full veto statement below). UPDATE: On July 2, the NC legislature overrode Gov. Perdue's veto.

RACE: After Judge Finds Statewide Racial Bias in Jury Selection, North Carolina Legislators Move to Repeal Racial Justice Act

On June 13, the North Carolina House of Representatives approved a bill to essentially overturn the state's Racial Justice Act (RJA), a groundbreaking law that allowed a finding of racial bias in sentencing or jury selection based on sophisticated statistical studies. If passed into law, the new bill would require courts to revert to the older and more problematic process of finding direct racial bias by the prosecution or jury against an individual defendant in order to reverse a death sentence.  The new bill also limits any statistics used to the county or prosecutorial district where the trial occurred, instead of from across the state. Earlier in 2012 in the case of Marcus Robinson, Judge Gregory Weeks conducted the first evidentiary hearing under the existing Racial Justice Act and found system-wide racial bias in the state.  He resentenced Robinson to life imprisonment without parole. Judge Weeks concluded that the defendant “introduced a wealth of evidence showing the persistent, pervasive, and distorting role of race in jury selection throughout North Carolina. The evidence, largely unrebutted by the State, requires relief in this case and should serve as a clear signal of the need for reform in capital jury selection proceedings in the future.” Rep. Rick Glazier, one of the key architects of the RJA, called the proposed legislation "extremely flawed,” and added, “This bill simply pays lip service to the notion that we have bias in our criminal justice system - and then simply eviscerates the only way left to prove it.”