Hearing Begins on Racial Bias and the Death Penalty in North Carolina

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Bryan Stevenson testifies in Fayetteville, NC



North Carolina attorneys have begun presenting evidence in the first hearing under the state's landmark Racial Justice Act, which requires that courts enter a life sentence for any death row defendant who proves that race was a factor in the imposition of the death penalty.

The hearing last week was the first evidentiary proceeding to take place under the Racial Justice Act. Lawyers for Marcus Robinson, who was sentenced to death in Fayetteville in 1994, presented statistical studies and other evidence to show that prosecutors illegally excluded African Americans from jury service on the basis of race. Lawyers are trying to prove that racial discrimination in jury selection - especially racially biased use of peremptory strikes - has compromised most capital cases in North Carolina.

EJI Director Bryan Stevenson testified during the hearing that, despite laws and Supreme Court decisions dating back to the late 1800s, Southern states continue to illegally block African Americans from serving on juries.

Nearly 135 years after Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875 to eliminate racial discrimination in jury selection, people of color continue to be excluded from jury service because of their race, especially in serious criminal trials and death penalty cases. EJI's report, “Illegal Racial Discrimination in Jury Selection: A Continuing Legacy,” is the most comprehensive study of racial bias in jury selection since the United States Supreme Court tried to limit the practice in Batson v. Kentucky in 1986.

Mr. Stevenson testified that Batson has been ineffective, stymied by cultural inertia and by lawyers' distaste for accusing each other of racism, judges who don't effectively evaluate claims of racial bias, and prosecutors who circumvent the rules in order to achieve a tactical advantage in the courtroom.

"The history of African Americans serving on juries has been defined by resistance," he said. He testified about several North Carolina cases where prosecutors attempted to remove or successfully removed potential jurors because they were black.

Congress first attempted to pass a Racial Justice Act in the early 1990's after the Supreme Court's disappointing decision in McCleskey v. Kemp essentially conceded that the Court would do nothing in response to dramatic evidence of racial bias in Georgia's death penalty system. Several states considered their own racial justice legislation to address racial bias in death penalty cases. North Carolina passed its historic law in 2009. Prosecutors have vigorously opposed the law and won a repeal of the statute in 2011, but Governor Bev Perdue vetoed the repeal and Mr. Robinson's hearing was allowed to proceed.

The hearing is expected to continue for another week in Fayetteville.