Commentary: The Unfortunate Repeal of the Racial Justice Act

A Republican legislature repealed the state’s Racial Justice Act, which allowed additional scrutiny of the sentencing of people on death row.

Posted: 06/10/2013 08:30 AM EDT

“It’s incredibly sad,” said North Carolina State Representative Rick Glazier. “If you can’t face up to your history and make sure it’s not repeated, it lends itself to being repeated.”

Glazer, a Democrat in a legislative body controlled by Republicans, was referring to the repeal of North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act, a law that allowed inmates on death row to challenge their death sentences based on the idea that racial bias played a role.

The repeal, which the state’s Republican governor, Pat McCrory, vows to sign into law, is another example of the kind of excess and extremism that has beset North Carolina in the last few elections.

At stake here are the lives of 152 people on death row in an age where modern technology has created welcomed scrutiny of the accuracy of convictions for capital crimes. Surely, not all 152 people facing death are innocent. But as so many cases have made clear — including that of the Central Park Five in New York — there is clear bias in the way some cases are handled.

The newly elected governor and the legislature have combined to take on a host of measures that are crippling to young children, to the unemployed and every day workers. They have cut the payroll tax credit for more than 900,000 poor and working people in the state while rejecting federal funding to expand Medicaid coverage for more than 500,000 North Carolinians who don’t have health insurance.

It is precisely this kind of action that has led to the massive protests in North Carolina over the last month. Civil rights groups, labor unions, clergy, students and others have protested the extremist measures undertaken by the state’s General Assembly and its governor.

The issue, rightly, has been a deeply emotional one. The protest this past week, which was organized by the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, had more than 1,000 participants.

It is not as though North Carolina had no history of racism or with innocent African-American inmates placed on death row who had later been found to be innocent.  

The law allowed prisoners to use data compiled by the state and the various counties to bolster their arguments that racial bias played a role in their sentencing. It was widely used since it was enacted in 2009 by nearly everyone who was to be executed by the state, some who were not African-American.

Proponents of the repeal said that the reviews of potential racial bias clogged the system and did not serve the interest of the victims of the crimes, who sought to bringing closure to their pain.

But it honors no one’s memory for the state to execute anyone falsely. And any effort to prevent that — even saving the life of one innocent person falsely convicted of a capital crime — is worth the effort. Those families, too, deserve fairness and compassion.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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