NC Legislature Votes to Preserve Racial Bias

The North Carolina House of Representatives voted yesterday to approve an “amendment” to the Racial Justice Act that essentially repeals it, making it impossible for death row inmates to appeal their capital sentences as two have already done successfully in NC courts since the historic bill became law last year. Rev. William Barber, our NC NAACP President has been an important leader in communicating the importance of this legislation. He spoke out clearly today about the tragic error of yesterday’s vote.

Rev. Dr. William Barber, NC NAACP PresidentBy Rev. William Barber, NC NAACP

Yesterday’s shameful vote by the NC House of Representatives to gut the Racial Justice Act with Paul Stam’s RJA-repeal bill cleverly disguised as an amendment bill is a refusal to deal with the systemic racism and racial disparities that have already been proven by the court of law to exist in our judicial system as it relates to the application of the death penalty.

We know the evidence of this racial disparity is true from history, we know it’s true from certified studies, and we know it’s true because two judges have ruled in favor of the legislation. The death penalty cannot be reversed, and everyone should want to be as sure as possible that there is absolutely no bias in its application. That is why proponents and opponents of the Death Penalty supported the RJA in its current format.

The only conclusion one can come to when you have legislators gut a bill that has already been used in the courts to prove systemic racism exists, is that those legislators do not care about, nor do they want to address, the reality of racial bias in our current legal system. And a refusal to use every tool necessary to root out the racist application of the death penalty is to in fact participate in the injustice itself.

We live in a state where seven men have been exonerated from death row–men who would have been murdered by the state if the system had only worked faster. Five are black, one is Latino and one is white. ALL were charged with the murders of white victims.

Support for the Racial Justice Act is not an endorsement of violence or a sign that anyone is “soft on crime.” Criminal justice enforcement is only strengthened when the system confronts racial bias directly and attempts to rid it from its practices.

All the evidence shows that the death penalty system is flawed with racial bias. It is bizarre and unthinkable that legislators are striving to maintain the status quo of racism in the death penalty system and steal a tool from the courts to address this abomination. We hope legislators will wake up and hear their humanity calling on them to change their mind and vote against this bill when it comes up for a final vote.

Finally, we have to ask: If the facts were in the other direction, how would legislators supporting this bill feel about repealing a law that was attempting to address a death penalty system that was 2-3 times more likely to put white defendants to death than their black counterparts? Would they fight to maintain a racially biased system if it were their family members or members of their community who were being racially targeted for the death penalty? Within constitutional and American principles, as a necessary rationale for our pursuit of justice, we should neither excuse nor allow patterns of systemic racism and discrimination. To do so is both unconstitutional and immoral.

We must note that not one African American legislator supported this legislative trickery. Every African American legislator supported the Racial Justice Act in its current form. Every legislator who voted for the repeal bill, which removes tools needed by the courts to root out racial disparity, is white. This alone should cause the legislators voting to repeal the Racial Justice Act to pause and rethink their vote.

The governor should veto this bill and the five Democratic legislators who voted for it should sustain their Governor’s veto and respect the many African Americans and other North Carolinians of good will who supported them.

Even if they override the veto, we will work with our attorneys in the NAACP and in our coalition to make sure all the provisions in our current law are provided to all death row defendants based on the principles of equal protection under the law.

At last year’s Wild Goose Festival in NC, I talked with Rev. Barber about the connections between faith and civil rights activism. You can check out a video here. If you’re in North Carolina, I’d love for your to come out to the Wild Goose Festival next Saturday, June 23, for a day of education and organizing with me, Rev. Barber and other friends.

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