North Carolina

North Carolina

North Carolina Legislature Votes to Repeal Racial Justice Act; Governor May Veto

On November 28 the North Carolina Senate voted to repeal the state's Racial Justice Act, which allowed death row inmates to use statistical evidence of racial bias to challenge their sentences.  The House had earlier approved the repeal measure.  The Act was passed in 2009, and the first cases brought under the law are just now being considered in state court.  There were considerable shifts in the state's legislature in the wake of the 2010 elections, leading to the repeal bill.  Prosecutors had been unsuccessfully fighting application of the law in the courts and have pushed for legislative action.  The Act provides that a death row inmate who receives a reprieve through a racial discrimination challenge will receive a sentence of life without parole.  Darryl Hunt, a former inmate who spent 19 years in prison for a murder he did not commit, reminded the Senate Judiciary Committee that five of the seven inmates who have been exonerated from North Carolina’s death row were, like him, African-American.  Hunt said, “I was one vote away from the death penalty.  I had 11 whites and one black on my jury. If you think that race did not play a factor in my case, then you're not living here in North Carolina."  North Carolina Governor Beverly Purdue, who signed the Racial Justice Act into law in 2009--saying it would ensure death sentences were imposed "based on the facts and the law, not racial prejudice"--must now consider whether to veto the repeal.

RACE: Supporters Re-Affirm Importance of North Carolina's Racial Justice Act in Face of Prosecutors' Challenges

Leaders from North Carolina's civil rights groups, such as the NAACP, and from the defense bar have re-affirmed the need for the state's Racial Justice Act, which was passed in 2009.  The Act allows death row inmates to challenge their death sentences using data from statistical studies of racial bias within the state.  The North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys is attempting to have the law repealed because they say it threatens the entire death penalty system.  Tye Hunter from the Center for Death Penalty Litigation said that some of the academic studies being used under the Act show clear patterns of racial bias in the state’s capital punishment system, including exclusion of qualified jurors on the basis of race.  Moreover, he noted,  "We hadn't had an execution for three years before the Racial Justice Act was even passed. So the moratorium on the death penalty, I think, has to do with other issues.”  Two Racial Justice Act cases are currently underway in state courts, though one is currently on hold.  In the active case, prosecutors have repeatedly sought continuances and have unsuccessfully tried to have the assigned Superior Court judge, Greg Weeks, an African-American, removed from the case. 

DPIC RESOURCES: New State Pages Now Available

DPIC is pleased to announce the completion of our State Information Pages for all 50 states and the District of Columbia.  These state profiles provide historical and current information on the death penalty for each state, including famous cases, past legislative actions, and links to key organizations and state officials.  For frequently updated information, such as execution totals, the size of death row, or the number of exonerations, see our State-by-State Database.  Readers are encouraged to send additional information, pictures, and links to organizations in their state.  You can reach the State Information Pages through the "State by State" button at the top of every page on our website or under the "Resources" tab in our main menu.

INNOCENCE: North Carolina Exonerates Two Men Who Faced Possible Death Sentences

On September 22, Kenneth Kagonyera and Robert Wilcoxson (pictured l. to r.) were exonerated of murder and freed from prison in North Carolina after a special commission ruled they were innocent.  The two men spent a decade in prison after pleading guilty to second-degree murder.  They have consistently maintained their innocence, claiming that they only pled guilty because they were threatened with the death penalty and feared execution.  The exonerations came after a 3-judge panel of the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission found sufficient evidence pointing to the men's innocence, including a confession from another man and DNA testing that implicated other suspects.  Ken Rose, an attorney with the Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation, said, "Along with executing an innocent person, coercing a guilty plea with the threat of lethal injection underscores the terrific risk associated with having a death penalty.... This case highlights the substantial threat that the use of the death penalty poses to innocent persons.  In North Carolina in just the last several years, three innocent men - Edward Chapman, Levon Jones and Jonathon Hoffman - were exonerated from death row."

MENTAL ILLNESS: North Carolina Man Guilty of Shooting Spree at Nursing Home Avoids Death Penalty

Despite being found guilty of eight murders of mostly elderly people and the prosecution seeking the death penalty, a North Carolina jury recently convicted Robert Stewart of second degree murder, thereby avoiding the possibility of a death sentence.  On September 5, he was sentenced to prison for over 100 years.  Stewart had gone on a shooting spree at a Carthage nursing home in 2009, apparently under the influence of alcohol and prescription drugs.  Although none of the jurors disclosed their rationale for opting for second-degree instead of first-degree murder, both diminished mental capacity and voluntary intoxication were offered as rationales by the Stewart's defense team.  The prosecutor, Peter Strickland, said the families are “getting solace in the fact that he was sentenced to more than 131 years."

NEW RESOURCES: Five New States Added to State Information Pages

DPIC is pleased to announce the addition of five more states to one of our latest resources, the State Information Pages.  Adding to the original 15 state pages made available earlier, pages for Alaska, Kansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Wisconsin may now be accessed as well. These pages provide historical and current information on the death penalty for each state (regardless of whether it currently has the death penalty), including famous cases, past legislative actions, and important links to key organizations.  For frequently-updated information, such as execution totals, the size of death row, and murder rates, see our state-by-state database. More pages will be made available soon.  You can reach the State Information Pages through the "State by State" button at the top of every page on our website or under the "Resources" tab in our main menu.

North Carolina Court to Hear First Challenge under State's Racial Justice Act

Marcus Robinson will be the first North Carolina death row inmate to have a sentencing challenge heard in court based on the state's 2009 Racial Justice Act.  According to the act, a death row inmate who can establish through statistical studies that his sentence was racially discriminatory can seek to have it commuted to life in prison.  Robinson's lawyers plan to argue that he received a death sentence partly because he is black and his victim was white  They plan to cite several North Carolina studies, including one that found that a defendant who killed a white victim was 2.6 times more likely to be sentenced to death than if there were no white victims in the crime.  His lawyers will also cite statistics showing that prosecutors in the state reject minorities for capital juries at twice the rate they reject whites.  In Robinson's case, the prosecutors rejected half the potential jurors who were black but only 15 percent of potential jurors who were other races.  His sentencing jury was comprised of nine whites, one American Indian and two blacks, plus two white alternates. The Racial Justice Act was challenged in the state's prior legislative session, but it was upheld.

Two Cases of Probable Innocence Illustrate Need for Better System of Review

Attorneys for a murder defendant who may be innocent have called for reforms in the system of federal review, and particularly to the "accumulated barriers to habeas corpus review of claims of factual innocence."  Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project, along with attorneys for Dr. Jeffrey R. MacDonald in North Carolina, pointed to the mounting evidence of MacDonald's possible innocence that was dismissed by the federal courts until DNA evidence finally became available:  "MacDonald's various legal teams filed successive habeas petitions over the decades. All of these petitions were denied by the federal district court in North Carolina and by the 4th Circuit, in large measure because each new discovery was viewed, and analyzed, in isolation.... When the DNA test results were finally available, the 4th Circuit, in an abrupt turnaround, derided the piecemeal approach previously taken to one evidentiary discovery after another and instructed the district court this time to review 'the evidence as a whole' and apply 'a fresh analysis.'"

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