Jeff previously posted news items about North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act (RJA), including one here updating readers on the bill’s path to law, and one here about actual RJA filings. I was recently told by the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts that there now are at least 204 filed RJA motions. Although most of those motions have been filed as post-conviction motions for appropriate relief (MARs) by death row inmates, a number have been filed in pending capital cases (the RJA allows for filing at the Rule 24 hearing or post-conviction as a MAR). Given the number of filings and the novelty of the act itself, I am fielding a fair number of questions about RJA procedure (discovery, nature of the hearings, etc.), and questions of statutory interpretation. In this post I’ll focus on the act’s core provisions and highlight three significant interpretation issues relating to those provisions.
The RJA provides that “[n]o person 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.” G.S. 15A-2010. It further provides:
“[a] finding that race was the basis of the decision to seek or impose a death sentence may be established if the court finds that race was a significant factor in decisions to seek or impose the sentence of death in the county, the prosecutorial district, the judicial division, or the State at the time the death sentence was sought or imposed.”
G.S. 15A-2011(a). Thus, to prevail on a RJA claim, a defendant need not prove that race was the basis of the decision to seek or impose a death sentence in his or her particular case. By the express terms of the statute, a RJA claim may be established by showing that race was a significant factor in decisions to seek or impose the death sentence in the county, the prosecutorial district, the judicial division, or the State at the time the death sentence was sought or imposed. Other sections of the RJA provide that statistical evidence may be used to prove a RJA claim. Specifically, the RJA provides that evidence relevant to establish a RJA claim may include statistical or other evidence that, irrespective of statutory factors, one or more of the following applies:
(1) Death sentences were sought or imposed significantly more frequently upon persons of one race than upon persons of another race.
(2) Death sentences were sought or imposed significantly more frequently as punishment for capital offenses against persons of one race than as punishment of capital offenses against persons of another race.
(3) Race was a significant factor in decisions to exercise peremptory challenges during jury selection.
G.S. 15A-2011(b). Factor (1) focuses on the defendant’s race. Factor (2) focuses on the victim’s race. And factor (3) focuses on the race of the venire members.
These core provisions present a number of interpretation issues. Among them are the following:
- What is the meaning of the term “race”? The RJA speaks of race generally, and does not limit its application to any particular race. However, the RJA does not define the core term race or incorporate by reference any commonly used racial classifications. Because all RJA claims are likely to present statistical evidence, the question of “who is in” and “who is out” of the statistical groupings can make a lot of difference on what the statistics show.
- What is a “significant factor”? While the statute provides that a defendant may establish a RJA claim by showing that race was a significant factor in decisions to seek or impose the sentence of death, it does not provide guidance on that statutory term. Clearly race has to be more than a factor; by the statute’s express terms it must be a significant factor. Does the term significant factor mean that the factor has to be statistically significant? Legally significant? We don’t know.
- What is the meaning of the phrase, “at the time the death sentence was sought or imposed”? While the statute provides that a claim may be established if the court finds that race was a significant factor in decisions to seek or impose the sentence of death in the county, the prosecutorial district, the judicial division, or the State at the time the death sentence was sought or imposed, it does not specify the relevant period of time. Because the RJA authorizes proof by statistical evidence, questions inevitably will arise about the appropriate time period to be used in the statistical analysis. And as noted above with regard to racial groupings, the strength of the statistical case may vary dramatically depending on the period used in the analysis.
These are just three issues that judges and litigants will struggle with as the current glut of RJA motions work their way through the system. I welcome your thoughts on these questions and identification of others that warrant a closer look.