According to a recently released study, researchers have concluded that the race of a victim is a determining factor in death sentencing. Yet, it is unclear how these findings will impact sentencing in North Carolina.
Under the Racial Justice Act, signed into law last August, a defendant may use statistical evidence of discrimination to avoid the death penalty in exchange for a life sentence. However it’s application has since been questioned by legislators, attorneys, and the families of victims.
The Office of Indigent Defense Services recommended the commissioning of an official study to be used by all defendants. Rules adopted by the Office of Indigent Defense Services also discuss only the Grosso-O’Brien study. The Grosso-O’Brien study was designed specifically to serve as the accepted standard under which a defendant may file a claim under the NC Racial Justice Act. Following the methodology of prior studies, including the Baldus study at the center of the McCleskey v. Kemp, in controlling for multiple variables, the Grosso-O’Brien study will provide statistics for all jurisdictions.
The $500,000 Grosso-O’Brien study is funded by grants from non-profits and private foundations including North Carolina based Z. Smith Reynolds and A.J. Fletcher, New York based Open Society Institute, and Vermont based Maverick Lloyd. These groups have a history of supporting organizations opposed to capital punishment.
Whereas the newly released Radelet-Pierce study controls only for aggravating factors, such as multiple victims or additional felonies and examined only cases involving either a black or white victim (nearly 8% of N.C.’s population is not in this category). The funding source(s) for this study is also remains unclear.
Bringing us to the two questions we should be asking:
1) Will the State accept these results as the standard required under the Racial Justice Act over the originally commissioned study?
2) Who funded and commissioned this new study? Surely these experts did not wake-up one day and decide to study race and justice in North Carolina.
Current defendants have begun filing motions under RJA to delay their trial date until the study is released with the expectation that the results will show measured bias. However, should this study find there to be no racial discrimination, the Racial Justice Act would be rendered irrelevant.
With the results of the Grosso-O’Brien study to be released in the coming weeks, it will be very interesting to see if and how the findings compare and the impact on the continued application of the Racial Justice Act.