Sunday, July 19, 2009

North Carolina Op Ed: "Beyond Fixing" (Put it in mothballs! )

Op Ed from Raleigh, NC's New & Observer

Beyond fixing----An effort to purge racial bias from death penalty decisions is well-intentioned, but the death penalty itself is flawed.

If a mere law enacted by the General Assembly and signed by the governor could guarantee racial justice in North Carolina, then people of good will already would have taken care of that important piece of business. Alas, if it were only so simple. But it's not hard to understand why now, many of those same people of good will have rallied behind a bill ambitiously titled the "North Carolina Racial Justice Act."

The bill, which cleared the state House last week after an impassioned debate, actually focuses on one perceived aspect of racially driven mistreatment. It is intended to shield criminal defendants from discrimination in the justice system that could result in an unfair sentence of death -- unfair in that it was influenced by racial prejudice.

On its face, this is a proposition with much to recommend it. Yet the bill, in inviting statistical evidence of discrimination that is not necessarily linked to the particulars of a case at hand, stumbles in its attempt to reach a worthy goal.

Patterns of crime and punishment may show that social ills place an extraordinarily heavy burden on minority groups. Racial bias surely can be, has been, part of that unfortunate picture. But as specific cases play out in the courtroom, those patterns are of limited usefulness in determining either guilt or appropriate sentences.

The Racial Justice Act has been spearheaded by Democratic Rep. Larry Womble of Winston-Salem, who is African-American, and has received vigorous support from the state chapter of the NAACP. Here's a clue as to why: Of the 163 people on Death Row as of April 13, the latest total on the prison system's Web site, there were 60 white men, two white women, 87 black men and one black woman. That's in a state where the African-American population is about 22 %.

To detect a tilt?

It's reasonable to wonder if the disproportionate number of condemned inmates who are black reflects a lingering bias in the justice system. It's reasonable to declare, as the Racial Justice Act does, that no one "shall be subject to or given a sentence of death or shall be executed pursuant to any judgment that was sought or obtained on the basis of race."

How, though, to determine whether such a hideous outcome was in the offing? The proposed act allows for the use of statistical evidence that the scales have tilted against defendants of a certain race in a certain jurisdiction. But those statistics can lead the courts into a confusing and ambiguous minefield. For example, what if white defendants received most of the death sentences in a county, as has happened? Would that suggest the need to send more black murderers to death row?

The act's supporters point to what they say is a finding that the killers of white people in North Carolina are more likely to be sentenced to die than the killers of black people. However, if that is true, there are plausible explanations other than that prosecutors, judges or juries are biased. And, in fact, interracial killings are the exception, not the rule. So to correct the imbalance, it could well be that more black killers of black victims would have to be condemned. That surely isn't what Womble and his allies wish.

Is the justice system that condemns a small fraction of murderers reliably accurate and consistently fair in its findings? Sadly, no. The roster of people exonerated after having been convicted of killing someone tells that tale. African-Americans, for a host of regrettable reasons, are too often caught up in the wheels of the court system, and the chance that they will pay a price for flaws in that system is high.

System errors

Those flaws have included instances of trial attorneys unprepared to handle the demands of a capital case and prosecutors who wrongfully withheld evidence favorable to the defense. Any defendant who can show that his counsel was ineffective or that the prosecution cheated is entitled to relief. Statistics involving alleged racial bias in other cases would tend to be beside the point.

Still, it requires a leap of faith to assume that every defendant wrongfully convicted or unfairly sentenced will manage to persuade the courts to correct the mistake. Couple the possibility of a horrible miscarriage of justice with the costs and inefficiencies of capital punishment, with its years of appeals, and there is a strong argument for simply letting North Carolina's death penalty fade into disuse.

Clearly there is no reason to follow the state Senate's lead. In passing a version of the Racial Justice Act, senators also moved to resume executions, which have been on hold for the last couple of years because of court challenges. The act's House champions know better than to swallow that kind of poison pill.

No one should quarrel with the concept of purging any residual racial bias from the process of determining which murderers are sentenced to death. But rather than continuing to tinker with death's machinery, as a Supreme Court justice once described the grim effort of trying to fix the unfixable, better to put it in mothballs.

(source: Editorial, News & Observer)


dudleysharp said...

The News and Observer (NO) says the death penalty is "Beyond fixing"
(7/19/09). Nope.But, may be the NO is beyond repair.

NO says the list of the exonerated from death row tells the tail of how inaccurate the death penalty is.More likely, it tells us the poor state of fact checking in the media.

The term"exonerated", as the NO knows, has been, highly misused by both the media and anti death penalty folks.

The national death row "exonerated" list has grown to 135, but it has nothing to do with the actually innocent sent to and released from death row. Even the New York Times did an article on this obvious anti death penalty deception. (1)

The number is very likely much closer to 25, or about 0.3% of those so sentenced. The 25 (as well as the 135) have all been released. (2)

Maybe the NO can do an article on what the difference is between 1) the alleged "exonerated" from North Carolina's death row and 2) for how many of those cases is there proof of actual innocence.

It is the only relevant issue in the innocence debate. Why? First, to be clear and honest. Secondly, we can't execute the legally innocent- that is impossible. Therefore, only the actual innocent are the relevant issue.

The NO only mentions that African Americans "are too often caught up in the wheels of the court system, and the chance that they will pay a price for flaws in that system is high."

In the modern era of the US death penalty, whites represent, nationally, 57% of those executed, blacks 34%. In North Carolina, whites represent 28
(65%) of those executed, blacks 13
(30%). It is clear that whites are more likely to suffer the worst flaw - an innocent executed - the number one alleged concern of anti death penalty folks, such as NO. In reality, it is everyone's chief concern.


dudleysharp said...


In a serious debate, it is ludicrous to imply discrimination because census data on population counts, for different races and ethnicities, is not consistent with the percentage counts of those races/ethnicities on death row.

Instead of populations counts, try looking at who is committing capital, death penalty eligible murders, instead.

The NO overlooked the crucial, relevant issue - the death penalty is more likely to catch a mistake than is any lesser sanction.(3)

Even NO knows that the death penalty system has, by far, the most extensive due process protections in US law. That means that the actually innocent convicted are more likely in non death penalty life cases and are more likely to die in prison, serving under that sentence, than it is that an actual innocent will be executed. (3)

The NO states: "The (Racial Justice Act's) House champions know better than to swallow that kind of poison pill." For NO, the "poison pill" is the Senate language to resume executions. Why is it a poison pill to implement the death penalty that judges and jurors felt was the most appropriate sanction for the crime committed? Because the NO's goal is to help stop any executions, just like their champions.

From a statistical standpoint, it is fitting that NO agrees with US Supreme Court Justice Blackmun that we should no longer tinker with death's machinery.

That is one judge out of 110 that have served on SCOTUS, or less than 1%.

Time for the NO to get their act together, if it isn't already "Beyond Fixing".

It isn't. Simply honor the Fourth Estate, present honest and balanced coverage of the death penalty. Period.

1) "The Death of Innocents: A Reasonable Doubt", New York Times Book Review, p 29, 1/23/05, Adam Liptak, national legal correspondent for The NY Times. Excerpt: "To be sure, 30 or 40 categorically innocent people have been released from death row . . . ". That is out of the DPIC claimed 119 "exonerated", at that time, for a 75% error rate. NOTE: It's hard to understand how an absolute can have a differential of 33%. I suggest the "to be sure" is, now, closer to 25.

2) The 130 (now 135) death row "innocents" scam

3) "The Death Penalty: More Protection for Innocents"

Susanne said...

Dudley, you keep repeating yourself just in different words.

We post something on this blog, you post a comment, I answer to it, then it seems you don't know any answer to my answer and just post more or less the same comment on a different post.

Since I do believe that people are actually able to read and to remember what was said before, I won't answer to this again but ask everyone to just remember what was said in the other posts and comments.