In August 2009, the North Carolina Legislature enacted the Racial Justice Act (“RJA”), which commands that no person shall be executed “pursuant to any judgment that was sought or obtained on the basis of race.” One of the most significant features of the RJA is its use of statistical evidence to determine whether the race of defendants or victims played a significant role in death penalty decisions by prosecutors and jurors and in the prosecutor’s exercise of peremptory challenges. The RJA commits North Carolina courts to ensuring that race does not significantly affect death sentences.
This article examines the RJA and North Carolina’s long struggle with race and the death penalty. The first part traces the history of race and the death penalty in the state, showing that racial prejudice exerted a consistent, strong, and pernicious influence on the imposition and disposition of death sentences. From colonial times into the 1960s, the overwhelming majority of those executed were African American, and despite most victims and perpetrators being of the same race, the overwhelming majority of victims were white. Hundreds of African Americans have been executed for a variety of crimes against white victims, including scores of African American men executed for rape. However, only three whites have been executed for murdering African American victims, and no white man was ever executed for the rape of an African American.