Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Valuing All Lives

From yesterday's Greensboro, North Carolina News-Record, this op-ed by MVFHR board member Yolanda Littlejohn, "The promise of the racial justice law":

North Carolina took a step closer to applying justice equally in death sentencing April 20, and also took a step toward valuing all lives regardless of race.

As a family member of a murder victim, I believe this is a big step toward a better quality of justice for murder victims’ families and all citizens of North Carolina. All lives matter; all lives have value; all lives should be treated equally. We should insist that our courts act accordingly.

In the first case heard under the N.C. Racial Justice Act, Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks found that racial bias did indeed play a role in death sentencing in our state.

The judge pointed to “a wealth of evidence showing the persistent, persuasive and distorting role of race in jury selection” in the specific case of Marcus Robinson and also in capital murder trials across the state. The evidence was so clear that the judge rightly changed Robinson’s sentence from death to life in prison without parole. He also called for broader action to correct the widespread problem of race unjustly influencing death sentencing. 

Studies presented at Robinson’s hearing showed that white lives have routinely been valued more than black lives in our state. To my mind and heart, this is not justice.

I lost my sister, Jacquetta Thomas, when she was murdered in Raleigh in 1991. I know the pain, grief and anger of losing a loved one to murder. The wrong individual, Gregory Taylor, was convicted and served more than 17 years for her murder.

He was freed in 2010 after an investigation by the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission. I never believed Taylor was guilty, and I often have thought about what would have happened if he had been executed. 

My experience strengthened my belief that we need a judicial system that treats everyone’s life as having equal value. If there is inequality, if there is racial bias, there is no justice for the loved ones taken from us.

Judge Weeks said something else that really spoke to me as a family member of a murder victim. He said, “The very integrity of the court is jeopardized when a prosecutor’s discrimination invites cynicism respecting the jury’s neutrality and undermines public confidence.”

I want a court system that is strong. I want a trial process that I can trust.

Finally, North Carolina is beginning to see the racial injustice that has been going on for many years in our death penalty system. The troubling revelations of racial bias brought to light by this hearing offer us a chance to look at how broken the system is. While the RJA doesn’t repeal the death penalty, I pray this ruling will eventually lead to the death penalty being abolished in our great state.

I am especially proud of our state for examining our justice system, acknowledging injustice within the system and acting on it. I am convinced this can only strengthen our system and result in greater justice for us all — including justice for our murdered loved ones.

If anything, the RJA doesn’t go far enough. In light of this ruling that confirmed racial bias in our death penalty system, it’s time for North Carolina to seriously consider repealing the death penalty, as five other states have done in the past five years.

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