Republicans in North Carolina are flexing their newfound political muscle in the legislature, and the results are bad news for 152 residents of the state's death row. Last week, the legislators repealed a law that has been the only barrier between many of those inmates and the execution chamber in Raleigh's Central Prison. In the process, the lawmakers turned their back on a unique effort by the state to overcome its tarnished history of racism.
The law they took off the books, entitled the Racial Justice Act, was passed by a Democratic legislature in 2009 to compensate for what was perceived to be pervasive racial bias in the application of the death penalty. The law allowed condemned murderers to seek a sentence reduction to life imprisonment if they could prove that race played a major role in their cases. Appeals under the law have contributed to a virtual moratorium on capital punishment; North Carolina's last execution was in 2006.
Supporters of the Racial Justice Act saw it as a historic measure that addressed a long history of injustice. As the Winston-Salem Journal noted in an editorial, some examples were blatant: a black defendant who got the death penalty in Stanly County being referred to in trial testimonyz as a "nigger from Wadesboro"; a juror in a Randolph County case who said after the trial in which he voted for death for the black defendant that "blacks do not care as much about living as whites do."
A study by Michigan State University researchers determined that over the two decades preceding passage of the Racial Justice Act, North Carolina prosecutors rejected twice as many blacks as potential jurors than they did whites; the rejection rate was even higher in cases where the defendant was black.
"Repealing this law in the face of clear evidence that it is still much needed in our court rooms comes perilously close to institutionalized discrimination in our justice system," said the Wilmington Star-News.
Republicans now wield more political cloat in North Carolina than they have for generations. They captured control of the legislature in 2010 for the first time in a century, then broadened their majority while also capturing the governorship in 2012.
The Racial Justice Act was one of the issues prompting weekly demonstrations against Republican efforts to roll back fiscal and social measures put in place by their predecessors. Dubbed "Moral Mondays," the six weeks of demonstrations at the state Capitol have so far resulted in over 380 arrests.
But neither the editorials nor the protests have deterred the powerful Republican majorities in both houses of the General Assembly. They not only repealed the Racial Justice Act, but also conferred legal protection on medical professionals who might assist in executions. Doctors, nurses and technicians would not be liable to regulators or ethics boards for their participation in administering lethal injections. So much for the Hippocratic oath to "do no harm."
There was a sense of glee among the statehouse victors that bordered on the bloodthirsty. Senator Thom Goolsby, who led the repeal forces, seemed to be almost rubbing his hands together at the prospect of executions resuming: "We're going to see that the laws of this state are carried out in their finality," he said.
Let's be clear about what's at issue here -- it is finality. There is no appeal from the grave. North Carolina's legislators in the 2009 session faced up to a troublesome past and its enduring legacy in passing the Racial Justice Act. It was an attempt to provide some balance in a system historically and demonstrably weighted against equal application of the law. The legislators didn't propose that murderers walk free; they provided for life behind bars instead of execution for those who could prove their sentences were corrupted by racism.
The current crop of legislators have turned their backs on that attempt at fairness. "It's incredibly sad," said Democratic representative Rick Glazier of Fayetteville, a supporter of the law at its inception and at its death. "If you can't face up to your history and make sure it's not repeated," he said, "it lends itself to being repeated."
North Carolina had executed 827 people -- by hanging, electrocution, poison gas and lethal injection -- when the clock stopped in 2006. That clock is ticking again.
Martin Clancy is the co-author, with Tim O'Brien, of a new book on the death penalty, Murder at the Supreme Court: Lethal Crimes and Landmark Cases