First North Carolina Death Row Inmates File Appeal Under Racial Justice Act

Five men on North Carolina’s death row filed motions to have their death sentences reduced to life without parole based on data that indicate racial disparities in the state’s justice system. These cases are the first to request application of North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act, which allows the use of statewide or regional statistical studies to challenge a death sentence because of racial bias. In all five cases, the victims in the underlying murder were white and the defendants were black.  Moreover, prosecutors struck eligible blacks from the juries in these cases at greater rates than whites. In some cases, prosecutors struck eligible black jurors while accepting similar white jurors. Ken Rose, staff attorney at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation (CDPL), said, “We would like to live and practice in a system where race does not matter. But the results show that white victims are valued more highly than black ones, and that black jurors are being denied their right to serve. This evidence of racial bias cannot be ignored.”

The appeals will rely on recent studies from Michigan State University and the University of Colorado that found race to be a significant factor in jury selection and that the race of the victim appeared to factor into whether the death penalty would be sought against a defendant. One study showed that prosecutors in death penalty cases used peremptory strikes to exclude eligible blacks from juries at more than twice the rate that they excluded whites. Of the 159 inmates now on North Carolina’s death row, 31 were sentenced by all-white juries and another 38 had only one minority in their sentencing juries. Another study found that a defendant’s odds of getting the death penalty increased by almost 3 times if the victim is white. Malcolm Hunter, Executive Director of CDPL, said, “[W]e cannot, in good conscience, execute people who received death sentences because of the color of their skin, or their victims’ skin.”

(S. Ovaska and A. Blythe, "Five death row inmates seek new sentences, claim racial bias," News & Observer, August 3, 2010; "First five appeals filed under Racial Justice Act; cases from Forsyth, Davie counties are included," Winston-Salem Journal, August 3, 2010; Center for Death Penalty Litigation press release, Aug. 3, 2010). Read more about the five cases in which legal challenges were filed.  See also Race.