Arguments heard in Racial Justice Act cases; judge to rule later PDF Print E-mail

A Forsyth County prosecutor argued Monday that it is absurd that whites convicted of killing whites are filing claims under the Racial Justice Act.

"It is an insult that Timothy Hartford and white defendants who have been convicted of killing white victims can seek relief under this statute," Assistant District Attorney David Hall said in Forsyth Superior Court. "It is, frankly, obscene to use it in this fashion."

Hartford, who was sentenced to death in November, was convicted of first-degree murder in the deaths of Bob Denning, 64, and Anne Magness, 77, in April 2008.

Hall argued that the Racial Justice Act is unconstitutionally broad and vague and subject to multiple interpretations. It penalizes prosecutors from one county for the actions of prosecutors in another part of the state, he said.

But supporters of the law disagreed, saying that it is needed to deal with what they say are racial disparities in the application of the death penalty.

"The legislature was rightly concerned that race was a significant factor in capital punishment, and it made the correct decision in passing this law," said Ken Rose, an attorney for the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham.

Judge William Z. Wood heard arguments Monday on the constitutionality of the law, its first real test since it became law in August 2009. Wood said he will likely make a ruling this week.

The law allows death-row inmates and defendants facing the death penalty to use statistics and other evidence to prove racial bias played a "significant factor" in their sentence or in prosecutors' decision to pursue the death penalty. The only remedy under the law is to reduce an inmate's sentence to life in prison.

Wood considered two Forsyth County cases involving men on death row — those of Carl Stephen Moseley and Errol Duke Moses.

Prosecutors and supporters of the law, including the state NAACP, are closely watching Forsyth County. Several prosecutors from around the state, including Garry Frank, the district attorney for Davie and Davidson counties, and Randolph County District Attorney Randolph Yates, attended the hearing.

Also at the hearing was Darryl Hunt, who was exonerated by DNA evidence in 2004 after serving time in prison for the killing of Deborah Sykes. Other community activists, such as the Rev. John Mendez, attended.

Paul Green, an attorney representing Moseley, said there is a societal interest in the courts examining whether there is a history of racial discrimination in how the death penalty is applied.

"The point is that the General Assembly has grappled with this issue, and it has a right to do so," Green said. "I think the General Assembly has been attacked in the courtroom, and I think that's quite unfair."

Supporters of the law have said that it is the victim's race, not the defendant's, that determines who gets the death penalty. Motions filed under the Racial Justice Act cite a Michigan State University study that showed that a defendant was 2.6 times more likely to get the death penalty if at least one of the victims was white.

The motions also cite statistics from the Michigan study showing that of the 159 on death row in North Carolina at the time of the study, 31 had all-white juries and 38 had only one person of color on their jury.

Hall said that taken to its logical conclusion, the law could lead to the end of Western jurisprudence.

Green disagreed.

"I think Western jurisprudence is going to survive this."

"I sure hope so," Wood said.

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