In North Carolina last week more than 300 clergy members signed onto a letter sent to lawmakers urging the passage of the North Carolina Racial Justice Act, a bill giving capital murder defendants the right to challenge prosecutions on grounds of racial bias. The bill passed in the North Carolina House in 2007 and now is pending in the state Senate. Supporters of the bill hope the NC Senate will pass the bill in the next two to three weeks.

Facts about the North Carolina Racial Justice Act:

  • It would allow a person accused of a capital crime the opportunity of a court review of whether race played a part in the prosecutor's decision to seek the death penalty.
  • The bill would apply retroactively, so inmates currently on death row could make such arguments. If a defendant has already been sentenced to death, he may present evidence, if available, that his death sentence was improperly obtained on the basis of race.
  • As in housing and employment discrimination cases, the Racial Justice Act will allow defendants to use statistical proof of racial bias or other evidence to support such a claim. For instance, a defendant could cite statistical racial disparities in how the death penalty is used.
  • If a defendant succeeded in establishing his claim that race was a basis for his death sentence, the court could impose a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

The letter was distributed to clergy by People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, and contains signatures from Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, Episcopal, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim and other faith communities in North Carolina. The letter calls for passage of the NC Racial Justice Act "out of a deep concern over the documented significant and persistent role that racial bias appears to play in deciding who is sentenced to die in North Carolina and who is not."

North Carolina has more than 150 inmates on death row, according to the N.C. Department of Correction. In North Carolina, about 22 percent of the population is black, while more than 50 percent of the inmates on death row are black. Since December 2007, three African-American men from North Carolina's death row-Jonathan Hoffman, Glen Edward Chapman and Levon Jones-have been exonerated. In all of the cases, at least one of the murder victims was white. One of the exonerated men was even convicted with an all-white jury. Combined they spent almost 40 years awaiting their executions for crimes they did not commit.

Supporters of the Racial Justice Act cite a 2001 study by researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill that found that the odds of a defendant receiving the death penalty in North Carolina increase if the victim of the murder is white.

Executions are currently on hold in North Carolina pending a resolution of questions about the state's lethal injection procedure. Nevertheless, if passed, the bill would be a major development in the continuing debate over capital punishment in North Carolina.

The bill's advocates argue that the bill is just one step in ensuring innocent people are not sent to death. "You can overturn a wrongful conviction, but you can't unpack a wrong grave," the Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, told the Raleigh News & Observer last month.