Fact Sheet: The North Carolina Racial Justice Act

Aug. 15, 2019

  • The 2009 Racial Justice Act in North Carolina allowed death row prisoners who could prove that discrimination affected their trials and sentences to be resentenced to life in prison without parole. The law led to the discovery that African American citizens were being denied the fundamental democratic right to serve on juries in death penalty cases.
  • In six Racial Justice Act cases now before the N.C. Supreme Court, death row defendants submitted clear and compelling evidence that jury discrimination tainted their trials. The state is seeking to dismiss all six cases and slam the door on this evidence without it being heard in court.

  • In 2013, a newly Republican-led legislature repealed the Racial Justice Act. Nevertheless, the evidence the Racial Justice Act revealed must be addressed. North Carolina constitutional law dating back to the Civil War ensures defendants the right to have legally filed claims heard in court, regardless of whether the law is later repealed.

  • Four of the defendants were the only prisoners to receive hearings under the Racial Justice Act. All prevailed and received sentences of life without parole, but they were returned to death row after the legislature repealed the Racial Justice Act in 2013. The other two had their cases dismissed without ever being heard. The State Supreme Court must now decide whether the constitution requires that the six defendants facing execution get a fair hearing on their evidence of racial bias.

  • Denying evidence of racism its day in court is unfair and unconstitutional.  Dismissing these claims would be a stain on North Carolina’s record that would erode public trust in its criminal justice system.

  • These cases involve key civil rights: the right of citizens to serve on a jury and be selected in a manner free of discrimination, and the right of capital defendants to a fair trial, free of discrimination. It is illegal to strike any juror based on race, and these cases test North Carolina’s resolve to enforce this vital civil rights protection.

  • The evidence shows that, in the six cases, N.C. prosecutors engaged in racially discriminatory conduct. For example, in one case, the prosecutor made derogatory references to African Americans as “blk wino” and “thug,” while accepting white jurors with criminal backgrounds as “fine” or “ok.”

  • The evidence also shows that racial bias in North Carolina’s death penalty is pervasive. A statistical study found that, in the defendants’ counties, prosecutors excluded black jurors at more than twice the rate of white jurors. Documents showed that prosecutors were specifically trained in how to disguise racially motivated strikes of black jurors.

Go here to learn how to take action against North Carolina’s racist death penalty.