On this much we hope critics and supporters of North Carolina's controversial Racial Justice Act will agree: Racial bias is unacceptable in the state's system of justice - and it must be rooted out wherever it is found. None of us should be content with a system that unfairly metes out punishment - particularly the death penalty - based even in part on the color of a person's skin.
How North Carolina deals with that premise may become clearer now following the culmination last week in Fayetteville of the first evidentiary hearing involving the justice act. Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks is mulling reams of data and testimony as he considers whether Marcus Robinson's death sentence should be commuted to life without parole.
In our view, a better way to deal with this issue is for the state to declare a moratorium on the death penalty. North Carolina simply cannot make a case that the death penalty has not been applied in racially biased way. It has. Study after study documents it.
The most comprehensive one was done by Michigan State University law school researchers who found that qualified black jurors - those not released for cause such as opposition to the death penalty - were dismissed at nearly twice the rate of white jurors. An Observer probe 10 years ago found a similar pattern of few blacks picked for juries of black defendants in death penalty cases. We also found that blacks who killed whites were three times more likely to face execution as did murder suspects generally.
The state's Racial Justice Act was lawmakers' attempt in August of 2009 to address and root out such inequities.
We've said the law rightly focused on a judicial wrong. But we don't think inmates should be allowed to simply use evidence of general bias to prove their specific case was tainted by such bias.
Critics are right on that point. But they are wrong to continue to muddy the water about whether the law allows death penalty inmates a "get-out-of-jail-free" card. It doesn't. Section 15A-2012 is clear that if evidence of racial bias is found that the "death sentence imposed by judgment shall be vacated and the defendant resentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole."
Still some critics, including several district attorneys, continued even as this first hearing was being held to push the inflammatory contention that the law would allow murderers to go free. The law does not, and it's a disservice to victims' families to perpetuate the notion.
We don't know how Judge Weeks will rule in this case. Robinson's co-defendant is already serving a life sentence for the murder. Robinson's lawyers presented both evidence of a pattern of bias from cases other than his own, and data for his particular case alleging there was inequity. They said that at Robinson's trial, the prosecution removed half of all qualified African American jurors from serving on the jury, but removed only 15 percent of white jurors. Robinson was tried by a jury with only two blacks.
So this case doesn't rest solely on general statistical evidence of racial bias. The judge should render a ruling that clearly spells out whether race played an unfair role in this specific case.
Murderers deserve harsh punishment. But faith in our legal system demands that justice be applied fairly. The Racial Justice Act used wisely could help make sure it is.