June 5th, 2013

North Carolina Legislature Votes to Repeal the Racial Justice Act

On June 5, 2013, the North Carolina legislature voted to overturn the Racial Justice Act, an historic law that prohibited the use of race in the imposition of the death penalty.

Passed in 2009, the Racial Justice Act (RJA) required courts to vacate a death sentence where race was a factor in the imposition of the death penalty. North Carolina was the first state to pass legislation aimed at remedying racially discriminatory practices in death penalty trials, including racial bias in jury selection.

Prosecutors vigorously opposed the law and successfully lobbied the legislature to vote for a repeal of the statute in 2011 but Governor Bev Perdue vetoed the repeal. In April 2012, Cumberland County Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks vacated Marcus Robinson's death sentence based on evidence that North Carolina prosecutors intentionally discriminated against African Americans in selecting capital juries. The groundbreaking ruling came after the state's first evidentiary hearing under the RJA.

In June 2012, North Carolina's Republican-led state legislature amended the RJA to weaken its protections by barring defendants from relying on statistical evidence of racial discrimination; the amendment requires a defendant to demonstrate that prosecutors intentionally used racial discrimination in his or her particular case. This made claims much more difficult to win. Nevertheless, in December 2012, the death sentences of Christina Walters, Quintel Augustine, and Tilmon Golphin, were overturned under the RJA after they proved that prosecutors had blocked African Americans from jury service because of their race.

On June 5, 2013, the legislature voted again to repeal the RJA. Two weeks later, Governor Pat McCrory – a Republican who was inaugurated in January 2013 – signed the repeal bill. Governor McCrory predicted that eliminating the RJA would remove the “procedural roadblocks” that had kept North Carolina from executing anyone since 2006. There are 152 people on North Carolina’s death row and nearly all of them filed motions under the RJA; many of those motions remain pending as courts consider whether they may proceed in light of the repeal.