Study finds racial bias in North Carolina’s death sentences


RALEIGH, N.C. — Someone accused of killing a white person in North Carolina
is nearly three times more likely to get the death penalty than someone
accused of killing a black person, according to a study released
Thursday by two researchers who looked at death sentences over a
28-year period.

The findings come as many in North Carolina
are focusing on the death penalty and race. Death-row inmates have only
a few more weeks to file challenges to their sentences under the Racial
Justice Act approved by the state Legislature last year.

For the study, touted as one of the most
comprehensive examinations to date of the modern administration of the
death penalty in North Carolina, Michael L. Radelet, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and Glenn L. Pierce, a research scientist in the Northeastern University school of criminology and criminal justice in Boston, examined 15,281 homicides in the state between Jan. 1, 1980, and Dec. 31, 2007. Of those, 368 resulted in death sentences.

The researchers looked at many factors, such as the
number of victims and whether other crimes such as burglaries and
robberies were committed during the homicide. They also tried to
consider similar homicide cases.

Their analysis of the data showed that the odds of
receiving a death sentence in cases where the victim was white were
2.96 times higher than the odds in cases with black victims.

“It’s just kind of baffling that, in this day and age, race matters,” Radelet said.

Jay Ferguson, a defense lawyer in Durham, N.C.,
said the study found what others have shown — that it’s not so much the
race of the defendant, but the race of the victim, that determines the

“I think over the years, the white-victim cases seem
to get more attention in the criminal justice system,” Ferguson said.
“They seem to get more attention from the district attorneys and the
juries. The Legislature has made it clear that if we’re going to have a
death penalty in North Carolina, it’s got to be colorblind. And these studies show it’s not.”

Executions in North Carolina
have been on hold for roughly three years. A push to stop doctors from
assisting in executions, and a lawsuit filed by some death row inmates
challenging the use of lethal injections as cruel and unusual
punishment, have created a de facto moratorium.

And last summer, the Legislature passed the Racial
Justice Act, one of only two laws of its kind in the nation. The law
allows judges, for the first time, to consider statistical evidence
that suggests race was a key factor in prosecutors’ seeking, or a court
imposing, the death penalty on a disproportionate number of people from
a racial group.

Current death row inmates have until Aug. 10 to file their challenges.

The study released Thursday will help bolster the
case of death penalty critics, who for years have complained that
capital punishment is applied with bias, intentional or not.

“This definitely vindicates the Legislature’s
passing of the Racial Justice Act,” said Tye Hunter, executive director
of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham. “Studies like this all point in the same direction. They point to race discrimination in the South.”

Radelet, who has studied the administration of the death penalty in 10 states, including Florida, California and Nebraska, said the findings about North Carolina tended to mirror findings from most other states. In Florida,
he said, the odds were slightly higher that a person accused of killing
a white person would get the death penalty compared to cases when the
victim was black. In Nebraska, though, the odds were lower.

“It turns out the racial biases tend to be lower where there are not as many death sentences,” Radelet said.

Seth Edwards, a prosecutor in Martin, Washington, Tyrrell, Hyde and Beaufort
counties who took over this month as president of the North Carolina
Conference of District Attorneys, said after a brief review of the
study that prosecutors consider many factors when deciding whether to
pursue a capital homicide case.

“I strongly disagree with the implication that
prosecutors base their decision to seek the ultimate punishment on the
race of the victim or the defendant,” Edwards said in an e-mail
message. “Prosecutors do not look at skin color. We consider lots of
things, but race is not one of them.”

Radelet and Pierce, the study authors, encouraged “continuous monitoring of the death penalty in North Carolina to see if patterns of racial bias change.”


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