A Forsyth County judge ruled Thursday that the N.C. General Assembly acted within the bounds of the state constitution when it crafted and passed the 2009 Racial Justice Act. The controversial law allows defendants who may receive or have received a death-penalty sentence to avoid execution if they can prove racial bias was a factor in their sentence. North Carolina is only the second state in the U.S. to pass such a law.
The matter was brought to Forsyth Superior Court Judge William Wood through the complaints of two men, Errol Moses and Carl Stephen Moseley, who both are on death row. Both are hoping to avoid execution by proving they were affected by historical and widespread racial bias in the application of the death penalty statewide, said attorney Ken Rose of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation based in Durham. Rose represents Moses, while CDPL attorneys together represent more than 40 death-row inmates seeking relief under the RJA.
Before the courts would handle the merits of the men’s cases, the judge reviewed Forsyth prosecutors’ contention that law was too broad and vague, and that it was unconstitutional to hold prosecutors responsible for patterns of racial bias statewide, Rose said. Wood concluded otherwise.
"The court ruled that [the Racial Justice Act] was a fair exercise of the legislature to craft a remedy to racial discrimination,” Rose said. Wood will file a written order reflecting his decision later this month.
Members of the state legislature’s conservative majority said at the start of the legislative session that they would work to amend or even repeal the law this session. Meanwhile, nearly 150 death-row inmates in North Carolina have sought relief under the Racial Justice Act, filing claims last summer.
The proceedings for Moses and Moseley were the first to make a court docket. Now that a judge has ruled on the larger questions of constitutionality, the courts may begin hearing the actual claims for the two inmates, Rose said. At that time, attorneys for the defendants will be able to expand on two recent studies on patterns of racial bias in North Carolina’s death penalty over the past 20 years, Rose said.
Another case, one in the Triangle, is on the calendar for March. Attorneys for Durham defendant Isaac Stroud will be arguing that racial bias was a factor in his death sentence. Stroud was convicted of first-degree murder in 1995.