Death Penalty Debate: New Study On Race & Jury Selection

Executions have been on hold in NC for the past five years and some new information may further complicate the issue.

Central Prison in Raleigh is home to North Carolina's 157 death row inmates. Some of them have been there since 1985. Twenty-eight of them, all convicted of first degree murder, are from Eastern Carolina. But with the death penalty on hold the debate rages about what exactly to do with these killers, and what it means for all involved.

Tom Bennett is the Executive Director for the NC Victim Assistance Network. He says, "Crime victims are getting yanked around emotionally and it's despicable. It's a terrible thing to do to people."

While Bennett advocates for crime victims and their families, others fight for those facing death. Tye Hunter is the Executive Director for the Center for Death Penalty Litigation. Hunter says, "Are we going to kill people based on, ya know they're probably right?"

Hunter's center represents 40 people currently on death row. "When people support the death penalty one of their assumptions is there's no question about the person's guilt, that any questions about the person's guilt has been resolved in the accused's favor and that lots of courts and judges have looked at this. But our system, it's not that accurate."

Hunter says the cases of death row inmates having their convictions tossed out and set free are a clear example of a broken system. Some of those exonerations helped lead to the current death penalty moratorium. Since then, three more people have been set free, while others wait.

So where ultimately is the debate over the death penalty headed? More litigation certainly could be filed, but Bennett suggests letting voters decide. "I would love to see this state have a referendum on the death penalty and abide by whatever the public decides."

But Hunter says it's not quite that simple. Several current legal challenges need to be resolved in the courts, such as how North Carolina executes those on death row, execution protocol, and whether lethal injection constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. And the argument over the role race plays is about to be ratcheted up. Hunter says, "We're gonna show the court system some things and they are not going to like it. I don't like it. It's uncomfortable."

At a hearing next week in Fayetteville, Hunter's firm will detail a study on jury selection completed by Michigan State. He says the study reveals on all cases with people still on death row in North Carolina, qualified African Americans were kicked off the jury two to three times the rate of white people all over the state for twenty years.

But Bennett says appeals based solely on race, which he says virtually all death row inmates have made under the state's Racial Justice Act, are very broad and vague. "In order to have a basis for an appeal the perpetrator and attorney would have to show that there was an intent to show racial prejudice."

Intent or not, it seems to be one more hurdle in determining whether executions will resume in North Carolina, or be banned permanently.

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