Senate Bill 9 should become law

Published 12:06 am Sunday, February 5, 2012

Seth H. Edwards is the district attorney for Beaufort, Hyde, Martin, Tyrrell and Washington counties.

This week the first case to be heard under the Racial Justice Act has begun in Cumberland County.

The RJA allows a death-row defendant to use statistics from another part of North Carolina in an effort to overturn his or her death sentence, even when the defendant is unable to show racial discrimination in his or her particular case. North Carolina prosecutors favor Senate Bill 9, which would amend the RJA. The amendment still assures that a person’s race shall not be a basis for seeking or implementing the death penalty; however, the amendment would require a defendant to show race was a significant factor in his or her particular case. Last December, Gov. Beverly Perdue vetoed Senate Bill 9. Although the state Senate voted to override her veto, the state House has not. So, the original RJA remains in effect.

The RJA as currently written has resulted in unintended consequences. For example, in Beaufort County, Terry Ball has filed a claim under the RJA, seeking to convert his death sentence to life without parole. Ball is white, and his victim was white. A Beaufort County jury convicted Ball of first-degree murder in 1994, and that same jury determined that because of aggravating factors, Ball deserved the death penalty. Now, Ball is asserting he deserves a life sentence instead of death because of of racial discrimination. Ask yourself, “How can a white man who brutally killed a white woman claim racial discrimination?” The simple answer: because he can under the current RJA, which ignores the brutality of these crimes and instead focuses on the use of statistics.

Speaking of statistics, proponents of the original RJA quoted from studies at Michigan State and UNC-Chapel Hill that showed African-Americans are more likely than white Americans to receive the death penalty in interracial homicides. It is now becoming clear that RJA supporters based their opinions on data that was either incomplete or should not have been considered. An explanation is in order. The UNC-CH study used every homicide instead of only those homicides that qualified for the death penalty. In other words, this study utilized all murders without considering aggravating factors that distinguish capital murder from noncapital murder (an apples-to-oranges comparison). When the RJA was originally debated, proponents told us that African-Americans who killed white victims in North Carolina received the death penalty in 5.1 percent of the cases versus 3.5 percent for whites who killed an African-American victim. This was an inappropriate comparison.

On the other hand, if we compare only those homicides with aggravating circumstances (apples to apples), both races have the same approximate 10 percent chance of receiving the death penalty in cross-racial homicides (based on UNC-CH study).

If Senate Bill 9 fails to become law, we will continue to waste precious resources on claims — like those filed by Ball — that have no business seeing the light of day in a courtroom.