In 2009, North Carolina took a big step forward towards addressing the rampant racism in the criminal (in)justice system by passing the Racial Justice Act, which allowed “people facing the death penalty to present evidence of racial bias, including statistics, in court.” The new statutes were not considered by activists to be an end in themselves, but a step towards total abolition in the state.
It was a much needed law. A UNC-Chapel Hill study found that in North Carolina, a person is 3.5 times more likely to receive the death penalty if convicted of killing a white person. “Those who kill whites are disproportionately represented on death row,” said Jack Boger of the UNC Law School. In one year (2007-2008), three men were exonerated from death row. One of the men’s trials also had an all white jury. A juror even openly admitted his racial bias. 2004 saw the higher profile release of Darryl Hunt, who had served 19 years for a rape and murder he did not commit. An Ohio State University study on lynching and the death penalty showed that the states that execute the most people are the states that also had the highest number of lynchings.
Perhaps the most telling statistic of all is this: Out of 157 people currently on death row in North Carolina, 154 of them have filed claims under the Racial Justice Act.
Since the 2010 elections, repealing the RJA has a been a priority of many lawmakers, right along with putting anti-LGBT bigotry in the state constitution and hiking university tuition as high as 44%. The arguments against the act are recycled racist nonsense–that it is unfair to recognize people of color as a specially oppressed group, that death row prisoners are using it to “cheat the system.”
In response, Darryl Hunt, the exonerated death row inmate and abolitionist said, “If you think race didn’t play a factor in my case, in my being arrested charged, and convicted, then you’re not living here in North Carolina.”
On Tuesday, however, the state legislature did indeed repeal the RJA. Governor Perdue could still veto it, but she has not indicated that she will do so. Although she supported the legislation in 2009, she has caved time after time to right wing pressure–pressure that does not accurately reflect the politics or wishes of her constituents.
(Perdue has also pushed to allow offshore drilling off the Outer Banks and has not taken a stand against discriminatory voting measures that would shorten the early voting period and redistrict the state to minimize the influence of Black and Latino voters. She also signed a bill requiring employers to use e-verify to prevent undocumented immigrants from gaining employment into law–this in a state that has the fastest growing Latino population in the country.)
What does the repeal mean for abolitionists in North Carolina? Getting the state to admit that racism was a primary factor in many death penalty convictions was a huge step forward toward our eventual goal of a world without the death penalty. It was, we have to remember though, only a tactic–and while it opened up a possible appeals process, the weakness of the law was that while it allowed evidence of racial bias, it placed “proof” of that bias on the defendant and did not guarantee removal from death row if the appeal was upheld. In addition, racial bias may not always be clearly evident, since the courts are not the only racist institution in our society.
In other words, a legal remedy was a step forward, but we shouldn’t spend our time fighting to get this one back–we should push for one that is more comprehensive and stands a better chance of overturning convictions–or, better yet, full abolition. We have a better chance now than ever. Support for the death penalty is waning. Illinois and Oregon have abolished the death penalty this year.
But it’s also impossible to take this out of political context.
As I’ve elucidated above, politicians are attacking on all fronts–criminal injustice, LGBT rights, women’s rights, healthcare, environment, you name it. In the past, this has been overwhelming, but we are in a different political moment. Why? Because since the Occupy movement has sprung up, we have the ability to counterattack.
We have old tools–occupations, pickets, rallies–as well as new ones like the mic check at our disposal. According to Business Insider, who tagged an article about Occupy with “They could strike anywhere,” we have a good section of the 1% quivering a bit. We can blockade prison entrances, jam courtrooms, picket and demonstrate to show we will not tolerate a two step back move like repealing the RJA. In fact, we demand two steps FORWARD. Full abolition. Immediately.