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North Carolina's death penalty debate

A 2009 state law allows death row inmates to reduce their sentences to life without parole if they can prove racial bias in sentencing or jury selection.

March 04, 2012
  • Marcus Reymond Robinson is the first person to challenge a death sentence under North Carolina's Racial Justice Act. It allows death row prisoners to cite statistical patterns to argue their jury selections or sentences were racially biased.
Marcus Reymond Robinson is the first person to challenge a death sentence… (North Carolina Department…)

The machinery of death is ripping itself to chunks in North Carolina. Would that this would happen in more places — like, say, California.

Conservatives and prosecutors in the Tarheel State are up in arms over a 2009 law that allows death row inmates to reduce their sentences to life without parole if they can prove racial bias in sentencing or jury selection — even if the bias wasn't directed at them but at others. In other words, if convicts can show a statistical pattern of racial bias statewide, they can use it as evidence that their own trial may have been skewed. And they don't have to be minorities to appeal; a white inmate who can show excessive dismissal of black potential jurors might be able to dodge the executioner.

Opponents of the law are calling it a backdoor way to end the death penalty, and they're probably not wrong. That's because it's not going to be very hard for inmates to demonstrate racial bias. A Michigan State University study found that, between 1990 and 2010, North Carolina prosecutors dismissed black potential jurors at twice the rate of nonblacks in death penalty cases. The case of the first inmate to test this law, convicted killer Marcus Reymond Robinson, is currently being heard, and as Times staff writer David Zucchino reported Wednesday, it's being watched carefully in other states. North Carolina's law may well spread if Robinson succeeds.

It's not an ideal solution. North Carolina lawmakers had good reasons for passing the law — there is considerable evidence of skewed juries in the state, killers are far more likely to be sentenced to death if their victims are white, and in 2009 there were a spate of cases in which death row inmates were exonerated by DNA evidence. But the approach is laden with complications. For one thing, a high dismissal rate for black potential jurors isn't necessarily an indicator of racism; it may be that blacks distrust the justice system and oppose the death penalty more than whites, so they are dismissed for of their beliefs rather than their race. Moreover, North Carolina has a potential nightmare brewing: Because the sentence of life without parole didn't exist there before 1994, it's possible that inmates sentenced before then who successfully overturn their death sentences could be set free.

The better way? Borrow a page from Illinois, New Mexico and other states that have done away with the death penalty and replaced it with life without parole.

Capital punishment imposes ruinous costs on states, it can't be reversed if an inmate is later exonerated, it's highly questionable whether it can be carried out in a humane manner, and it protects society from killers no better than putting them away for life. As for the possibility of racial bias in sentencing, there probably isn't a reliable way to eliminate it. North Carolina is going through the back door when, with more honesty and fewer complications, it could go through the front.

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