The Racial Justice Act ought to be a good thing. Its intent, to take the black, white and red out of the courtroom and achieve the ideal of a color-blind judicial system, is noble, if fleeting, and that pursuit should never end.
Unfortunately, the act has become a game, one that is played by death-row inmates who — here’s an irony — have little more than time on their hands. Consequently, the Racial Justice Act finds itself a chamber over from death row as Gov. Bev Perdue decides whether to veto legislation overturning the act, or to let it die. It’s not an easy decision, one that Perdue had mulled for two weeks in advance of a meeting Monday with critics and proponents of the act.
It’s unclear when Perdue will act — or even if she will. If she vetoes the legislation, it could face an override when lawmakers return to Raleigh in 2012, and if she does nothing, the law abolishing it stands.
The act, which was adopted in 2009 by a much different General Assembly, allows a judge to reduce a death sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole if he determines racial bias was a significant factor in the imposition of the death sentence. The convicted can use statistical evidence to back up that claim — and there doesn’t appear to be a shortage of it.
This state has come a long way from its Jim Crow days, but there is more road to be traveled. Statistics consistently show that race is a factor in who is sentenced to death and who is spared with life in prison, but it doesn’t perfectly fit the script. History shows that the death penalty is not necessarily more likely for black defendants, but is for those who kill white people. The implication is clear and troubling: A black person’s life has less value.
There are currently 158 convicted murderers on death row in North Carolina, and all but a handful of them have found the elbow room in the Racial Justice Act to appeal their sentence. That exposes the Racial Justice Act as having been written too broadly.
If Perdue vetoes the legislation, then legislators could improve the Racial Justice Act by including language that would eliminate obviously bogus appeals that do no more than further burden an overloaded judicial system. But even if Perdue doesn’t act and allows the death of the Racial Justice Act, that doesn’t preclude the possibility that it could be resurrected as a new and improved version.