Take a trip with me down memory lane to the mid-60’s, 70’s and early 80’s and try to remember the huge surge in violent crime that swept across the United States. The judicial activism of Chief Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren laid the foundation for liberal action against the death penalty. The result of tampering with capital punishment was immediate and clear. Murder rates spiked in the 70’s and didn’t really come back down until voters demanded tough penalties and reinstatement of the death penalty.
The impact of bringing back capital punishment is very clear. According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, since 1994, violent crime rates have declined, reaching the lowest level ever in 2005. So why would legislators in Raleigh seek to weaken North Carolina’s death penalty?
Both houses of the Legislature have now passed SB 461, known as the Racial Justice Act. This bill, if signed by Gov. Perdue would give murderers an extra bite at the appeals apple by allowing them to claim racial bias of the justice system. That said, we certainly should not allow any racial bias by our judges, juries, prosecutors or law enforcement officers. Any such bias is already against the law.
But the insidious thing about SB 461 is that it attacks death penalty statistics based on race. It allows defendants to argue a case that a disproportionate number of a specific race has been arrested for a serious crime, by citing the amount of people in their race who have been put on death row compared to the racial group’s proportion of the population. During a committee hearing at the Legislature, Wake County District Attorney Colin Willoughby (a Democrat, by the way) made a very disturbing observation about the potential effect of this bill when he said, “This bill will create witnesses out of statistics.”
To follow this same logic, if Lincoln County were to try a death penalty case against an Australian Aborigine when there was already one on death row from the same prosecutorial district, the attorneys could claim that Aborigines had been unfairly targeted by the Lincoln County justice system and their client should be given a lesser punishment.
The reality of what this bill is intended to do is far less noble than preventing institutional bias. It is really an effort to end the death penalty in North Carolina despite popular support. Recent opinion polls of North Carolina’s likely voters show strong support for capital punishment. The May 2009 Civitas poll, 64 percent of voters said they supported the death sentence, 28 percent said they opposed it and 8 percent said they were undecided.
In 2007, death penalty opponents succeeded in effectively ending capital punishment in North Carolina. They used the unelected NC Medical Board, who threatened the license of any physician that participated in the application of lethal injection.
Lost in all of these debates about the rights of murderers is the right of their victims. Who speaks for those victims brutally killed? Is it the NC Medical Board? Is it the NAACP? When violent crime increases in North Carolina, maybe we can use statistics to keep the killers out of our lives?
It is time for the people of North Carolina to worry more about what crime was committed and who the victim is and less about who committed it. That is real justice: protecting people from the predators of society.
This article originally appeared in the Lincoln Tribune on 7/17/2009.