This press release comes from the offices of By Rep. Larry Womble – NC House District 71 and Rep. Earline Parmon – NC House District 72
For two years, state legislators, lobbyists and numerous organizations have fought tirelessly to diminish racial disparities in capital sentencing through a bill known as the North Carolina Racial Justice Act. While the bill passed the North Carolina House in May 2007 primarily down party lines, the bill sat dormant in the North Carolina Senate as senators placed politics over ensuring that the shade of a person’s skin does not influence a sentence of death over life.
The North Carolina Racial Justice Act was sponsored and championed by Forsyth county legislators, Representatives Larry Womble and Earline Parmon. The Winston-Salem duo also challenged the racially-biased conviction of Darryl Hunt along with numerous other community supporters.
Hunt, a black male, served eighteen years in prison for the rape and murder of a white female journalist that he did not commit. The NC Racial Justice Act gained support from Hunt, Winston Salem minister John Mendez, NC NAACP President and newly inducted national NAACP Board member the Reverend Dr. William J. Barber, II along with numerous state Senators including Ellie Kinnaird (Orange County), Dan Clodfelter (Mecklenburg County) and Floyd McKissick (Durham County) who led the Senate fight. The first African American Speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, Dan Blue, current Speaker of the House Joe Hackney, House Majority Leader Hugh Holliman and NC Legislative Black Caucus Chair Alma Adams were also fearless advocates for this bill.
The North Carolina Senate refused to bring the Racial Justice Act to the Senate floor for a vote so that North Carolinians could truly see how elected officials in this state feel about issues dealing with race and fairness in state policymaking. Mark Basnight is President Pro Tempore of the NC Senate and Senator Tony Rand of Fayetteville is the Senate Majority Leader.
Numerous attempts were made by legislators, community groups, constituents and advocates to have this bill heard in the Senate during the long legislative session in 2007 and throughout the 2008 short continuation session. The Senate killed the Racial Justice Act by failing to deal with race and fairness during an election year and by blocking a hearing on this bill.
Representative Larry Womble, who tirelessly championed the passage of this legislation with co-sponsor Representative Earline Parmon, expressed “great disappointment that the North Carolina Senate did not do the right thing to make sure that justice is carried out in North Carolina when lives are at stake. The Senate had a chance to pass legislation that would begin to look at fairness when it comes to race in the death penalty and they deliberately chose to do nothing. While we will work to win this bill again next year, there is no guarantee that the Senate leadership will allow this bill to be heard in the new year. Voters need to know that they are being heard by seeing how those who represent them truly stand on critical issues.”
While the battle has been lost until the next legislative session, state legislators, the NC Legislative Black Caucus and numerous coalitions including the NC NAACP led coalition of eighty-five statewide progressive organizations will continue to fight for this vital legislation in a new and improved form in the next legislative session. Unfortunately, this will not ease the devastation that will occur if executions resume in North Carolina before reforms such as the NC Racial Justice Act are enacted.
“This bill was important in North Carolina this year in light of the release of three innocent men from North Carolina’s death row in the past few months. All three men were Black. It is important that we have a criminal justice system that is completely fair and this bill is the social remedy needed to begin to address this problem” commented Winston-Salem Representative Earline Parmon.
Executions in North Carolina are currently on hold while the courts battle over the involvement of medical doctors in the state’s lethal injection procedure. Advocates seeking to reform North Carolina’s death penalty have sought to push reforms such as the Racial Justice Act during this defacto moratorium despite cries from North Carolina district attorneys that this bill if passed would clog court systems with racial claims.
Despite similar fears that such legislation would clog up the courts, Kentucky, a state with a history of deeply entrenched racial divides, became the first and only state in the nation to pass a Racial Justice Act in 1998. In the ten years since the Kentucky legislation passed, there have not been any documented trends that this bill has stalled court processes in Kentucky.
If passed in North Carolina – a state with a death row population that is sixty percent Black despite the Black population in the state being only twenty percent, the Racial Justice Act will allow defendants to use statistics to prove race was a factor in the imposition or decision to seek the death penalty. The historic United States Supreme Court case, McClesky v. Kemp, first utilized statistics in a Georgia capital case to prove that the odds that black males would receive a death sentence increased by 4.3 times if the victim is white.
In North Carolina, a study by University of North Carolina Professor Issac Unah and UNC Law Dean Jack Boger, who also argued the historic McClesky v. Kemp case, revealed that the odds that black males would receive a death sentence increased by 3.5 times if the victim is white.
Race continues to play a role throughout the criminal justice system and to allow race to determine a person’s right to live or die is unacceptable and a flagrant example of failed policymaking decisions at the state and local levels. In a state that has at least twenty-five individuals currently on death row who were tried by all-white juries between the 1990s and the present day, it is difficult to argue that race is a factor that should be ignored.
Reverend Dr. William J. Barber, II, President of the North Carolina State Executive Branch of the NAACP concluded that “if the North Carolina Senate was not able to pass a free standing Racial Justice Act without amendments, it exposes that somebody must believe race should be used in the application of the death penalty. Somebody is playing race baiting politics. This should have been an easy vote. To have bodies that can apologize for slavery but can’t deal with current-day racism is quite sad and hypocritical.”
- Short Assembly Session May Be Recalled for What It Didn't Do (Winston-Salem Journal)