The NC General Assembly passed the North Carolina Racial Justice Act (RJA) in 2009.
The landmark bill allowed capital defendants and prisoners on death row to challenge death sentences based on evidence of racial discrimination during sentencing. The legislation was long overdue, supporters of the RJA affirm, because race (of the defendant and the victim of a crime) often determines whether someone is sentenced to death. Studies focused on North Carolina revealed troubling patterns about prosecutorial conduct and racial bias. The results are not isolated, as researchers have come to similar conclusions in multiple studies across decades.
“[Prosecutors were] more than twice as likely to strike [remove] black jurors as they are white jurors, and juries are two and a half times more likely to sentence a defendant to death if at least one of the victims is white.”
Of course, the RJA infuriated some “law and order” legislators such as BOG member Leo Daughtry. A well-established supporter of capital punishment, Daughtry objected to the very premise of the RJA. During a House floor debate, Daughtry argued that RJA claims would “clog our system up to the point where we will no longer have a death penalty.”
“I don’t see any way that this bill will ever allow us to use the death penalty again until this is straightened out. It’s simply a way to stop executions. I hope you’ll vote against the bill.” Leo Daughtry, statement on the House Floor debate on the RJA, July 15, 2009.
The act saved lives, but conservative legislators could not be convinced of its necessity.
In the midst of the 2010 election cycle, the North Carolina Republican Party chose to capitalize on the debate. They ran racist ads in the style of Willie Horton featuring a photograph of Henry Lee McCollum, a black death row prisoner. McCollum had served on death row for over three decades. The ad, referring to but not naming the RJA, claimed that McCollum could “soon be let off of death row.” In 2014 in light of DNA tests and new evidence of a coerced confession, McCollum was exonerated and pardoned by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.
In April 2012 a North Carolina judge found in North Carolina v. Robinson “statistical evidence of racial bias in the death penalty” and commuted the death sentence of Marcus Robinson to life without parole. Not even a few months later, the NCGA gutted the legislation by narrowing how statistics could be used in RJA cases and putting the burden of proof on the convicted. This measure significantly weakened the RJA’s legal application in N.C.
BOG member Thom Goolsby then entered the fray. As chair of Justice and Public Safety Appropriations, Goolsby became a “high-profile advocate for law-and-order legislation.” He authored legislation, S306, that repealed the RJA and attempted to bring back the death penalty even though de-facto moratorium had been in place in North Carolina since 2006. The bill repealed the Racial Justice Act by eliminating the process by which a defendant may use statistics to have a sentence reduced to life in prison. His bill, along with repealing the RJA, “lifted roadblocks” to executions.
While his repeal legislation moved through the General Assembly, Goolsby wrote an op-ed titled “Time to Kill the Racial Justice Act.”
Goolsby was almost obsessive in his condemnation of the RJA. He called the legislation “Monday morning quarter-backing to the Nth degree,” a disconcerting usage of a sports metaphor, and claimed that “RJA cases have nothing to do with the guilt or innocence of a defendant.” In perhaps his most inflammatory critique, Goolsby lamented that the RJA “turns our hardworking district attorneys into racists, and it turns the cold-blooded first-degree murderers into alleged victims.” Goolsby then pivoted in his defense by stating “I don’t believe that the DA’s across the state – particularly most of whom are Democrat – are racists.”
Daughtry, also supported the RJA repeal. Not only did he affirm that the judicial system is not racially biased, but claimed “I think our court system is the finest in the world, this debate is not about racial discrimination. It never has been. It’s about the death penalty…we ought to have justice that’s swift and sure.”
As of 2019 North Carolina has yet to come forward with a study that shows racial bias does not exist in sentencing.