The oral arguments Monday were about four defendants who have been resentenced to life in prison without parole after a Superior Court judge found “a wealth of evidence showing the persistent, pervasive, and distorting role of race in jury selection throughout North Carolina,” as well as in their individual cases.
However, the larger issue is this: As a result of the Racial Justice Act, a comprehensive study found that African-Americans are being systematically denied the right to serve on capital juries. A qualified black juror in North Carolina is more than twice as likely as a white juror to be removed with a peremptory strike.
The state has been unable to refute this study, and not for lack of trying. It spent more than $100,000 and hired three statistical experts and still could not come up with its own study or any alternative statistics.
The state is responsible for administering our system of justice, for ensuring that people get fair trials and that the right people are imprisoned. Yet, never during this process has it looked at the evidence uncovered by the Racial Justice Act and said: “These are disturbing trends. We need to take a better look at what is going on in our court system.”
Instead, it has devoted its resources exclusively to attacking the Racial Justice Act. Justice system officials appear determined, at all costs, to move forward with executions no matter how much evidence of racial bias is exposed.
They do not even appear fazed by the evidence — discussed once again at Monday’s Supreme Court arguments — that prosecutors across North Carolina attended a training seminar, sponsored by the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys, which provided district attorneys with a list of excuses they could use to explain their strikes of black jurors.
This seminar instructed prosecutors to cite such reasons as a prospective juror’s age, body language and clothing style to get around objections that they are illegally striking jurors based on race. These very excuses are used frequently in trials across N.C. to explain the strikes of black jurors, while white jurors are often not struck for the same reasons.
Juries that do not reflect the racial makeup of our society cannot return unbiased verdicts. Studies show that racially homogeneous juries deliberate less and are more likely to get the facts wrong and to convict innocent people.
In a state where five innocent people have been released from death row just since 1999, our state officials should be taking this evidence seriously — not doing their best to shove it back under the rug.