In 2009, the North Carolina General Assembly passed the Racial Justice Act. The law provided that men or women sentenced to death could appeal if they have evidence of racial bias—the clunky phrase people seem to prefer to the less polite, but more direct term “racism”—had been a factor in their sentencing.
The North Carolina law unsettled many people, and it was challenged almost as soon as it was signed. In 2011, the newly Republican legislature passed a repeal of the bill, claiming, among other things, that the act had inspired dozens of “frivolous” and expensive appeals, and that the state’s overworked district attorneys couldn’t handle the load. In turn, Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue vetoed the legislature’s repeal.
The Racial Justice Act would, at least for now, stand.
But the act was just a piece of legislation until this morning, when Judge Gregory Weeks set aside a death penalty sentence that had been meted out to Marcus Robinson in 1994.
At issue this morning was not whether Robinson was guilty of first-degree murder. At issue was whether “racial bias” had prevented the “fair and reliable imposition of the death penalty in North Carolina.”
Weeks found that racism was indeed at work in Robinson’s sentencing. There is, Weeks said, “considerable evidence of the continuing effects of racial prejudice in the application of the death penalty.” Specifically, Weeks found that racism guided the selection of Robinson’s jury, thus compromising Robinson’s right to trial by impartial jury. In accordance with the Racial Justice Act, Robinson will now serve a term of life imprisonment without parole.
In his remarks to the court, Weeks argued that Robinson was able to show “persistent, pervasive and distorting role of race in jury selection throughout North Carolina,” and that the data produced in Robinson’s appeal “should serve as a clear signal of the need for reform in capital jury selection proceedings in the future.” (This speaks to precisely what makes the Racial Justice Act a significant step forward. The Act allows defendants to use statistical patterns of racial disparity—rather than requiring direct evidence of racist motive in any individual case--in demonstrating racial bias.)
Echoing a century of Supreme Court decisions, Weeks noted that racial discrimination in jury selection of course harms the individual defendant—but beyond that, racist jury selection harms racial minorities more broadly, because such jury selection amounts to the establishment of “state-sponsored group stereotypes rooted in or reflective of historical prejudices.”
The future of the North Carolina Racial Justice Act is unknown. Our state legislature could, next year or the year after, strike down the law. Whoever is serving as governor then—Perdue is not running for reelection—might let the legislature’s action stand. But at the moment we can say this is a victory—a victory in the struggle to eliminate racism from our judicial system, and a victory against the death penalty itself.
The Racial Justice Act is, in part, a law about the ways the past bears on the present. In living historical memory, white vigilante groups across the South lynched black men. Juries that fail to include a representative number of African Americans—juries that then sentence black men to death—are not too far removed from that precedent.
Christians, of course, know a thing or two about how the past bears on the present. Each time we celebrate Communion we are bringing the past into our present reality.
And Christians know about unjust trials that lead to the death of men at the hands of the state. Christians should look on capital punishment and execution with horror because Jesus’ death was the end of believing that there is anything just about killing.
It is Eastertide. On Easter morning, at my church, we read the Resurrection account from the Gospel of Mark. Mary has come to the tomb looking for Jesus, but she was mistaken—he is not there. An angel tells Mary to turn around, and go find him where he is.
So too, justice is not to be found where our society has for too long sought it—justice is not at the place of death. Whatever it is people think is accomplished by the death penalty—deterrence; righting the scales—it is not there. We need to turn around and go find justice somewhere else.
This struggle against the death penalty has been going on a long time, and it will go on a long time more. But I like to think that today’s decision in North Carolina is a turning point.
It is Eastertide. It is the season of resurrection. Here in North Carolina, we got a little bit of resurrection this morning.
Lauren F. Winner is a priest associate at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Durham, North Carolina. The author most recently of Still, she teaches at Duke Divinity School, and, through Durham’s Project TURN, at the Raleigh Correctional Center for Women.