Under North Carolina’s 2009 Racial Justice Act, requiring judges to let any inmate off death row if the judge finds that race was a “significant factor” in the death sentence, about 95 percent of the state’s death-row population, or 152 inmates, filed bias claims by last month’s deadline, says the Wall Street Journal. Convicts whose petitions were successful would instead face life sentences, with no chance of parole.
North Carolina’s new law is among the most hotly debated responses to criticism of the death penalty. Many states have rethought the sentence amid new DNA evidence that has freed some inmates. Maryland has suspended the death penalty while it reviews whether lethal injection causes undue pain; Texas passed a law to improve legal representation in death-penalty appeals. New Jersey and New Mexico in recent years abolished the death penalty. North Carolina’s effort is the most far-reaching to examine the amorphous question of whether race played an improper role in decisions to seek or impose death sentences. “There are so many variables that can legitimately affect a prosecutor’s decision to seek the death penalty, including the seriousness of an offense,” said Christopher Slobogin, a death-penalty expert at Vanderbilt University Law School. “This will be a messy enterprise.” For background on the North Carolina law in The Crime Report: http://thecrimereport.org/2009/11/02/the-death-penalty-and-the-plague-of-racism/