Friday, 21 August 2009

Take a direct approach to racial justice

State legislators and Gov. Bev Perdue should play it straight about the death penalty: Just put an end to it.

There are too many problems with implementation, too much inconsistency in application. Public opinion is slowly turning against it and juries are more reluctant to impose it. It’s time to replace capital punishment with life in prison without parole.

Creating the Racial Justice Act simply adds more confusion and inequity.

When Perdue signed the bill into law last week, she declared it ensures that when “our most heinous criminals” are given the death penalty — which she says she supports — the decision is based “on the facts and the law, not racial prejudice.”

That’s a fine objective, but the Racial Justice Act offers no such assurance.

There’s no question that “racial prejudice” has accounted for shameful injustices. But the answer to disparate treatment in the courts based on racial prejudice is not to require disparate treatment based on racial distinctions. That’s what this law does.

It allows a judge to prohibit a capital prosecution or overturn a death sentence if the defendant shows statistically that death sentences were sought or imposed “significantly more frequently” against persons of his race within the county, prosecutorial district, judicial division or state.

What is “significantly more frequently” is not defined.

What is clear is that the death penalty decision need not have anything to do with the defendant’s case. He may have committed the most horrifying, vicious, detestable murder imaginable, yet he will be able to present himself as a potential victim of racial discrimination if the death penalty has been imposed “significantly more frequently” against members of his race.

Black offenders make up 54 percent of the 163 men and women on North Carolina’s Death Row, far out of proportion to their numbers in the general population. That alone may be viewed as “proof” of racial discrimination.

Because of this law, everyone on Death Row is entitled to seek relief on the grounds that race was a “significant factor” in the imposition of the sentence.

Even some white offenders might have a case because the law also recognizes that there’s a correlation between death sentences and the race of the victim.

There is, when the victims are white. So even white Death Row inmates, if their victims were white, may claim racial injustice.

No wonder prosecutors opposed this bill. It’s going to set off a slew of time-consuming, costly and confusing legal actions and create several tiers of Death Row justice.

If you’re white and your victim was black, you’re probably staying on Death Row. Justice was done.

If you’re black and your victim was white, you’ll probably see your sentence commuted to life in prison. You were discriminated against.

If you’re black and your victim was black, or you’re white and your victim was white, you’re somewhere in the middle. As for other races, there’s probably not enough statistical evidence to determine the amount of racial discrimination you experienced in court.

Regarding new prosecutions, the Eve Carson case could be a test for the Racial Justice Act but for an unusual twist. The white UNC student was kidnapped, robbed and murdered in Chapel Hill last year. Two young black men are charged. One, Demario Atwater, is old enough to face the death penalty. The Orange County district attorney said he will seek a capital prosecution. The Racial Justice Act would give Atwater the chance to contend his prosecution was motivated by race, not the actual crimes.

Back in January, however, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it would seek the death penalty under federal law. It looks as if the federal case will proceed first, and the state’s Racial Justice Act will have no bearing on it.

It all leaves too much to chance and potential manipulation. The death penalty has never been administered evenhandedly and without error. It can’t be. And let’s not deceive ourselves. The state will never execute all 163 individuals living on Death Row today. Maybe a handful.

So what’s really going to be gained by having dozens of “racial justice” hearings at who-knows-what cost?

Here’s my suggestion. Gov. Perdue should commute the sentences of every last one of them, all 163, white, black, Hispanic, whatever, to life in prison without parole.

Now that’s the direct approach to racial justice.


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