RACE: Historic Hearing Begun in North Carolina Under New Anti-Bias Law

The first hearing under North Carolina's Racial Justice Act convened at the beginning of February for death row inmate Marcus Robinson. The Racial Justice Act was passed in 2009, allowing death row inmates to use empirical and statistical data to demonstrate racial bias in their conviction or sentencing. Following changes in North Carolina's legislature in the 2010 elections, there were efforts to repeal the Act.  Governor Perdue vetoed a repeal bill and the legislature could not override her veto.  Robinson, who is black, was sentenced to death for a 1991 murder of a white victim. He  is seeking to have his sentence reduced to life without parole by showing racial bias in the jury selection for his trial. Barbara O’Brien, an expert in this area from Michigan State University, testified that state prosecutors in capital trials excluded qualified black jurors at more than twice the rate of qualified non-black jurors. For Robinson’s jury pool, qualified blacks where 3.5 times more likely to be rejected. O’Brien said, “Being black does predict whether or not the state will strike the potential juror, even when controlling for these other variables.” Robinson’s hearing is expected to conclude by mid-February, and the presiding judge’s decision will shape the way the new law is interpreted in the future. Other studies in North Carolina have shown that those who murder white victims are more likely to receive the death penalty than those who murder black victims.

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EDITORIALS: "Mistakes are made"

A recent editorial in Nebraska's Journal Star urged support for a bill to replace the death penalty with a sentence of life in prison. Among the reasons cited for its position was the risk of executing an innocent person. The editorial noted that advancements in DNA testing have shown the fallibility of the current system: “Seventeen people who were on death row have been set free after DNA testing proved they were wrongly convicted.” The editorial also pointed to more than 250 convictions that have been overturned nationwide because of DNA testing, including the Nebraska defendants known as the "Beatrice Six," who were wrongfully convicted of rape and murder but later exonerated through DNA testing. The paper cautioned against supporting the death penalty on the basis of one horrific case: “[E]ven if the system worked without flaw in that particular case, there can be no guarantee that it will work that way every time. And if the system cannot work without error - as the facts show - then the death penalty cannot be justified. Sooner or later, an innocent person will die at the hands of the state of Nebraska." Read full editorial below.

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RESOURCES: Recent Legislative Acitivity on the Death Penalty

DPIC is collecting information on pending legislation related to the death penalty.  For example, at least nine states will consider bills to repeal the death penalty in 2012.  In California, a coalition called Taxpayers for Justice has been collecting signatures to place a death penalty repeal initiative on the ballot in November.  On January 25, the Washington Senate Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on a bill to repeal the death penalty. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Debbie Regala, cited high costs as a reason for the bill: “We can keep the public safe with putting people in prison for the rest of their life, as opposed to the costly expense of executing them… It's always important and valuable for us to look at public policy and see if it's actually getting us the results that we want. When you're facing an economic crisis, you add an extra lens." Other states considering repeal bills are Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Maryland, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania. A few states, such as New Hampshire, have blls to expand the death penalty.

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Death Penalty Advocate Says Current Law Should Be Abolished

New Hampshire state representative Phil Greazzo, who has proposed a broad expansion of the death penalty, will also offer an alternative bill to abolish the death penalty entirely because it is so unfair.  Rep. Greazzo, a Republican, previously introduced legislation to expand the state's death penalty to include any intentional murder, maintaining the law should protect all people equally.  But he said he would rather have lawmakers do away with the punishment altogether than maintain the status quo.  The current law restricts the death penalty to certain murders, such as killing a law enforcement officer.  Greazzo pointed out the inconsistencies of the current statute saying, “If I hire someone to commit a murder for me, that would bring the death penalty.  If I did it myself, there's no death penalty. So the law is a little bit askew in fairness.”  In proposing both the expansion and repeal bills, Greazzo intended for lawmakers to consider a full range of possibilities for improving the current law.  He said, “Why not just have the argument once?  It's sort of a waste of time to have the conversation for years.”

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