Friday 28 January 2011

Forsyth cases test Racial Justice Act

The cases of two death row inmates who are seeking to have death sentences converted to life prison terms without parole made their way into a Forsyth County courtroom Thursday.
The landmark cases - the first of 154 death row inmates to test the Racial Justice Act - went before Judge William Z. Wood the day after Republicans took control of both General Assembly chambers.
Their plights will be watched by politicians, legal scholars and death penalty opponents as the young law faces threats in the statehouse.
Republicans in the state legislature, who for the first time in more than a century have sweeping control, have suggested repealing the Racial Justice Act.
The law, which narrowly passed in 2009 along party lines, allows death row inmates and defendants in death penalty cases to challenge prosecutions and sentences on grounds of racial bias.
In Forsyth County, Wood will be asked to weigh statistical and anecdotal evidence to consider whether racial bias played any part in the cases of Errol Moses and Carl Moseley, death row inmates since the 1990s.
Much of the hearing Thursday was about evidentiary issues. Prosecutors asked for more details about studies done by Michigan State University law professors that are the backbone of defense bias claims.
Defense lawyers, in turn, sought information on how and why prosecutors decided to seek the death penalty.
"For the first time instead of an esoteric argument about how terrible or how great the Racial Justice Act is, we were dealing with the legal issues in the courtroom," said Ken Rose, a lawyer with the Center for Death Penalty Litigation.
Darryl Hunt in court
As the arguments unfolded, Darryl Hunt, an outspoken advocate of the Racial Justice Act, watched the proceedings in the same courtroom where a jury wrongfully convicted him of rape and murder, then sent him away for life in prison. Hunt was exonerated by DNA evidence after he served 18 years behind bars.
"To see Darryl Hunt in this county courthouse where he was tried is so evocative," Rose said.
Prosecutors from across the state also were in the courtroom, watching and listening.
Pithier topics are scheduled to be heard in February.
On Feb. 7, Wood is set to hear arguments by prosecutors challenging the constitutionality of the Racial Justice Act.
Since its narrow passage in 2009, Republicans have been critical of how the law has been used by defendants before their trials.
Forsyth figures striking
Prosecutors maintain that race does not play a role in what cases they decide to prosecute capitally or in who they select for juries. They also have said that a jury being all white does not necessarily mean its decision was rooted in racial bias.
But advocates have lauded North Carolina for being one of only two states in the country to provide such an avenue for the convicted to use statistical and anecdotal evidence to charge that racial bias played a role in their prosecution and sentencing.
Death penalty opponents are gearing up for a fight in this legislative session.
"We're on the verge of having this huge progress in this state," Rose said. "I worry if they try to repeal this that there will be a throwback to meaner times."
The two Forsyth County cases could become models for how all the Racial Justice Act cases are handled, defense lawyers and prosecutors say.
Recent studies cite bias
Two recent studies from Michigan State University found that racial bias is still a major factor in life-and-death trials in North Carolina, and some of the findings from Forsyth County were striking.
Fifty-eight percent of death row inmates from Forsyth County were sentenced by juries with only one or no people of color, compared with 40 percent statewide. Forsyth County had more black defendants with all-white juries on death row than any other county.
In addition, 56 percent of murder cases tried capitally in Forsyth from 1990 to 2009 had white victims, though only 35 percent of the county's murder victims were white.
As the Forsyth cases move through the courts, others are set to start in the Triangle.
In March, Orlando Hudson, the chief resident Superior Court judge in Durham County, is scheduled to hear the case of Isaac Jackson Stroud, another death row inmate.
"We are pleased to finally begin addressing issues of racial bias," Rose, an attorney for the Forsythdefendants, said in a statement. "We look forward to working with the prosecutors to make sure that all deathsentences handed down in North Carolina are fair. Examining these cases will ensure that North Carolina lives up the highest standards of justice."

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