New North Carolina Law Aims to Combat Race Bias in Death Penalty


On August 11, 2009, North Carolina Governor Beverly Purdue signed into law the Racial Justice Act. The legislation recognizes the potential for racial bias in the administration of the death penalty and seeks to limit the influence of race-based discrimination in capital cases.

The new law allows people accused of a capital crime, as well as people sentenced to death, to challenge racial bias through the use of statistical studies. Prosecutors will have the chance to respond to claims of race discrimination. A judge could overturn the death sentence or prevent prosecutors from seeking the death penalty for those who conclusively demonstrate that race played a role in their case.

Statistical studies in virtually every state have revealed that race plays a decisive role in determining who is sentenced to death and executed in this country. More than half of the people on death row nationwide are people of color. Prominent researchers have demonstrated that a defendant is more likely to get the death penalty if the victim is white than if the victim is Black.

In Alabama, nearly 65% of all murders involve Black victims, yet 80% of the people currently awaiting execution were convicted of crimes in which the victims were white.

In North Carolina, five Black men in the past five years have been exonerated after spending years wrongfully accused of or sentenced to death for capital murder.

North Carolina is the second state in the country to pass legislation aimed at reducing racial bias in death penalty cases. Kentucky adopted a similar law in 1998.