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North Carolina's Racial Justice Act used in convict's appeal

As much as everyone would like to believe that race no longer plays a role in criminal convictions, a law passed by the North Carolina General Assembly in recent years demonstrates that concerns about racism in the justice system haven't gone away. The Racial Justice Act of 2009 provides death row inmates with a criminal defense mechanism to have their sentences converted to life in prison without parole.

The law is currently front and center in the appeal of a man's 1994 murder conviction. His is the first claim to be considered before a judge and is expected to set a precedent for how to handle more than 150 other Racial Justice Act claims that are pending.

The murder convict, who is black, was convicted of killing a white man during a 1991 robbery. He says that the prosecutor in his case illegally prevented some black jurors from serving on his jury, which included nine whites, two blacks and one American Indian. His lawyers also have a study of 173 North Carolina capital trials that suggests a pattern of racial discrimination in jury selection across the state.

On Tuesday afternoon, the judge who presided over the murder trial was repeatedly blocked by the man's lawyers from testifying on whether he thought racism was a factor in the trial. But prosecutors at the hearing argued the judge was in a key position to say whether it was, and that the prosecutor in the murder trial had legitimate, nonracial reasons to use peremptory challenges to dismiss some jurors who happened to be black. The hearing prosecutors wanted the judge to say as much.

A final decision hasn't been reached, but the case is being closely watched because it could affect the outcome of countless future capital trials in which racism is suspected.

Source: FayObserver.com, "Ruling blocks judge's answer in Racial Justice Act hearing," Paul Woolverton, Feb. 8, 2012

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