Final RJA Vote Today

Yea or NeaOur old friends at the General Assembly will be back this afternoon, considering a veto override of SB9, the bill designed to gut the Racial Justice Act, which was vetoed by the Governor last month. All indications are that the override vote will fail, though there is a slim possibility that conservatives can figure out a way to get it through.

At the committee hearing held back in November considering SB 9, I had an opportunity to address the committee on behalf of Action NC and tell the members why we are against the repeal of the RJA. The District Attorney’s were the folks who were pushing this repeal, and it was apparent how desperate they were to get it through. My prepared comments are below, and I think they nicely summarize why the RJA needs to remain as and why the false arguments of the DA’s ring hollow.

Good afternoon. My name is Kevin Rogers, and I am representing Action NC, a state-wide grass-roots social welfare organization.  I am speaking today in opposition of SB 9 and in support for the Racial Justice Act.

We have heard many competing claims about what the racial justice act does and does not do, and I am not here to re-hash those arguments.  What I am here to say is that in questioning the effectiveness of the Racial Justice Act, we are not debating the policy of the law – we are debating the politics of it.

Why are District Attorney’s so concerned about statistical evidence? They seem to love statistics! Every time they come up for election they crow about the increases in conviction rates and decreases in crime rates. They are probably less eager to tell you that in North Carolina’s death penalty cases, prosecutors removed prospective black jurors from jury panels at more than twice the rate that they removed prospective jurors who were not black, or that North Carolina defendants of all races are more than twice as likely to receive the death penalty if one or more of their alleged victims was white. It seems that DA’s don’t hate all statistics – just some.

The realities of race relations in North Carolina are black and white – no pun intended. There are haves and have-nots, there are the presumed innocent and the presumed guilty, there are those sentenced to die and those allowed to live. And while we acknowledge the tragic loss of victims and their families endure, two wrongs never make it right. We are not speaking today about the nuanced changes to evidentiary procedure or the interplay between McCleskey and Article 1 of the NC constitution. We are speaking about the decidedly blatant question of life or death. These are not numbers or mere statistics – these are people.

As you all know, NC is only the second state in the country to allow statistical evidence to be introduced in a capital case, and the question can legitimately be asked, “Why did we do it?” Why did we go out on a political limb, expose the State to litigation, and inject uncertainly into our already over-worked criminal justice system? It might have something to do with North Carolina’s abysmal racial history, but it is more likely has much to do with present day realities, such as the fact that anyone accused of killing a white person in North Carolina is nearly three times as likely to get the death penalty than someone accused of killing a black person.

Put another way, in our capital system before the RJA, one black life was worth less than one white life. This was precisely the problem the RJA was created to combat, and it is precisely why we still need it today. To gut the RJA by allowing this bill to pass is explicit approval on a system we know to be demonstrably unfair and unjust. I ask you to think long and hard before allowing this deceptively-named bill to pass to the floor. Why did we pass the RJA? We did it because it needed to be done and we did it because we are a forward-thinking state with the courage to fix our own mistakes. This committee is tasked with maintaining and increasing the standards of our judicial system, not degrading them.

The GA will convine at 2pm today - hopefully they won't cause any further damage. We will keep you posted.