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Human evidence of the need for justice

By Chris Fitzsimon

It’s too bad that every single member of the General Assembly who stands in front of television cameras clamoring for the state to resume executions wasn’t in the press room at the Legislative Building Tuesday afternoon.

Three men recently freed from North Carolina’s death row after spending a combined 36 years awaiting their executions for crimes they did not commit appeared with Darryl Hunt, who spent 19 years behind bars until he was finally declared innocent and freed from his life sentence just a few years ago.

The four unjustly incarcerated men have something else in common too. They are all African-American males and race played a role in the miscarriages of justice that robbed each of them of a significant portion of their lives.

They came to the Legislative Building as part of an effort to convince the Senate to pass the Racial Justice Act, legislation that sets up a procedure for a defendant to challenge his conviction or death sentence by showing that race played an improper role in the decision.
The House passed the Racial Justice Act last year with Democrats and Republicans supporting it, acknowledging that race does influence verdicts and sentences in death penalty cases.

A 2001 study by researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill found that the odds of a defendant receiving the death penalty in North Carolina increase if the victim of the murder is white. Critics have tried to dismiss the findings but have never produced any data to discredit it.

Executions remain on hold in North Carolina pending a resolution of questions about the state’s lethal injection procedure and the role that doctors and medical personnel play in putting someone to death.

Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger and House Minority Leader Paul Stam have repeatedly called for the General Assembly to pass legislation to resume executions as soon as possible.

That is a troubling enough suggestion considering that state courts are still considering North Carolina’s execution protocol. Death row inmates aren’t going anywhere.

But considering cranking up the execution machine at Central Prison when the fundamental flaws in the system are right before lawmakers’ eyes in the persons of Jonathan Hoffman, Glen Edward Chapman, Levon Jones and Darryl Hunt is simply offensive.

Many of Berger and Stam’s Republican colleagues in the House believe there are problems too, or they wouldn’t have supported the Racial Justice Act last session. Sen. Vernon Malone opened the news conference Tuesday, saying that it is unfortunate that “we live in a society where the Racial Justice Act is needed.” And how unfortunate that our criminal justice system continues to wrongly convict people and steal their freedom for years.

NAACP President Rev. William Barber told reporters that it was past time state leaders faced the fact that the criminal justice system discriminates against black men.

The dozen legislators standing behind the podium came to show their support for legislation that would recognize that bias and at least give defendants an opportunity to present it if it is present in their individual case.

Malone is right that it is a sad commentary on our state that we need a Racial Justice Act. But we do. Lawmakers have made some improvements in the capital punishment system in recent years, but not nearly enough. Race still plays a role and the Senate ought to do something about it by passing the Racial Justice Act this summer.

Chris Fitzsimon is the director of N.C. Policy Watch.

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