Death Penalty Law in North Carolina Means Rates of Executions of Black People Will Skyrocket


Courtesy of the general progress time brings, coupled with the various movements for social justice in recent decades, persons of all backgrounds and creeds have made significant strides in acquiring more rights and freedoms in American society. In particular, discrimination policies continue to grow in order to help protect and provide for marginalized identities, such as in the workplace or when buying a home. As for the courts of North Carolina, anti-discrimination efforts are reaching a serious roadblock. On Wednesday, June 13, the North Carolina House of Representatives approved a bill that essentially crippled the utility of the Racial Justice Act of 2009. Regarded by supporters as an instrument to confront and subvert historically unfair treatment and conviction on the grounds of race, this act represents a final chance to avoid facing the death penalty as a verdict of a racially-biased court proceeding.

Now we all know that there are many different perspectives on the specter of race in America, however, there are some alarming statistics which indicate racial disparities within the North Carolina judicial system. For example, one study by two law professors from Michigan State University found that a “defendant … is 2.6 times more likely to be sentenced to death if at least one of the victims was white”. Based off of this statistic it appears that white victims render harsher sentences in North Carolina, showing which victims (read: whites) evoke more sympathy and empathy in the state’s jury system. Additionally, the study found that “of the 159 people on death row in the state at the time of the study, 31 had all-white juries and 38 had only one person of color on the jury”. This statistic, I argue, exposes a huge problem in the North Carolina jury selection process; it is far too racially homogeneous and favors the sympathy of whiteness, resulting in heavy-handed, black punishment in the name of so-called “justice.”

I am not writing this piece to state that people who commit crimes do not deserve to face some form of punishment for their transgressions. My issue is that North Carolina prosecutors have deliberately, for years, prevented qualified black citizens from serving on juries via their power of peremptory challenge. Upon learning this, I feel as though the prosecutors who prepare all-white juries for a case do so in an effort to prevent a black juror from having sympathy for a black defendant, a sympathy that may impair sound judgment. The problem with this logic, if it is the motivation behind racially-homogeneous juries, is that it strictly positions whites as the persons capable of clear, unbiased judgment. As the earlier statistic demonstrates, this is not realistic. harsher punishments are delivered when a white victim is involved, and if the majority of cases are held before a white jury, it does not seem that bias is totally absent. To illustrate: white victim + white jury + black defendant =  increased chance of receiving the death penalty. Since this is the case, I contend that the Racial Justice Act is a relevant and worthwhile measure which helps expose and challenge institutionalized racism so that our system can continue its pursuit of equality and equity in the eyes of the law.