The North Carolina Supreme Court is considering whether four convicted murderers whose death sentences were commuted under the Racial Justice Act will have to return to death row, now that the Act has been repealed.
Joe Hackney says there are even bigger issues at stake.
“What we did in passing the Racial Justice Act was not to say that there was anything definitive that we knew,” he says. “But we gave defendants an opportunity to show that there was racial bias in the system.”
Hackney, now a practicing attorney in Chapel Hill, retired from the North Carolina House of Representatives in 2012.
Hackney was still the Democratic Speaker of the House when the Racial Justice Act was passed in 2009. The law allowed convicted murderers to have their sentences commuted to life without parole if they could prove racial bias was involved in sentencing.
“You know, we use statistics to prove all kids of things in a court of law,” he says. “Employment discrimination, among other things. And I thought it should be tested according to the legal principles that would be applicable to it. And it was tested, and the judge found that it was solid, and entered an order based on it.”
The now-Republican-led North Carolina General Assembly repealed the Racial Justice Act last year, with the support of Republican Governor Pat McCrory.
That prompted Hackney to release a strongly worded statement. In part, it read:
“When the stakes are as serious and final as they are in death penalty cases, we are obliged to ensure equal justice. The General Assembly fell short of that obligation today.”
On Monday, the cases of four North Carolina inmates affected by all this political back-and-forth went before the North Carolina Supreme Court.
Three of the inmates are black males. One is a Lumbee Indian female. All had death sentences commuted to life under the Racial Justice Act. But now that it’s been repealed, the Court must decide if that decision stands.
Hackney says the bigger issues are the lingering effect of race in North Carolina’s criminal justice system, and whether others will get their day in court.
“What were the parameters of using this law?” he says. “And now that it’s been repealed, what does it mean for others whose trials were not held before the law was repealed? And I don’t think anybody knows the answer to those questions, and I assume they’ll get answered.”
When the law was repealed last year, Governor McCrory said that the RJA had opened the door for nearly all of the state’s 156 death row inmates to seek relief, regardless of their race.
Hackney dismisses that concern.
“Nobody takes very seriously the claims of people who are on death row who are white, I don’t believe,” he says. “And so those cases would be adjudicated in short order, and without much expense, I assume.”
But Hackney says that, for people of other races who have historically faced discrimination in sentencing, it’s “a big deal.’
He says it is important that the examination of death sentences keep going forward.
The decision in the case of these four inmates could take several months. The ramifications for the future of the death penalty in North Carolina could be enormous.