Wake Forest Law’s Innocence and Justice Clinic Director Mark Rabil reacts to Racial Justice Act Repeal going to N.C. House floor for a vote

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Wake Forest Law’s Innocence and Justice Clinic Director Mark Rabil says if the North Carolina Legislature is successful in its attempted repeal of the 2009 Racial Justice Act, it will not end the litigation.

“We cannot hide from the facts.  A superior court judge concluded in four cases last year that race was a significant factor in kicking black folks off juries in capital cases.”

Rabil’s reaction comes in response to today’s North Carolina House Judiciary Committee vote, 9-4, that could send a proposal to repeal the remainder of the Racial Justice Act to the full House for a vote as soon as Thursday.

“Detailed studies have shown that the race of the murder victim is the greatest predictor of whether someone will be sentenced to death in North Carolina,” he explains.  “No one is accusing all the prosecutors in the state of being racists.  The purpose of the RJA is to make sure that people sentenced to death were not put on death row because of race.  This is something we can all agree would be wrong.”

The law currently allows death row inmates to seek to have their sentences reduced to life without parole if they can convince a judge that racism played a role in their sentencing. Senate Bill 306 would void the RJA as well as all pending cases for relief under the statute.

By 2010, 152 of the state’s 156 death row inmates had filed for relief under RJA. Opponents of RJA say it is unjust and claim the law is poorly written and takes up district attorneys’ and the courts valuable time.

“Now that more than 150 people have filed RJA claims, and now that the studies show that race has been a factor, we cannot hide our heads in the sand and turn back the clock,” Rabil adds.  “We must take steps to not only prevent race-based death sentences, but to make sure we do not repeat these mistakes of the past.  The repeal of the RJA will not end the litigation, as all the people who have filed claims will rightfully continue with the cases filed under the law as it existed when they filed.  This is just simple due process.”

Rabil is available for comment at 336-782-4447.

Rabil is an assistant capital defender in Forsyth County whose zealous advocacy led to the release and exoneration of Darryl Hunt after 19 years of incarceration. Rabil had been practicing law for four years when he was court-appointed to assist a senior partner in his law firm in representing Hunt, a 19-year-old black man charged with raping, and stabbing to death Deborah Sykes, a young, white, newspaper reporter. He would continue to represent Hunt for the next 20 years, through trials, hearings, investigations, appeals, and clemency and pardon proceedings. In the summer of 1993, post-conviction hearings regarding witness intimidation and discovery violations led to neither DNA tests proving that neither Hunt nor another suspect, Sammy Mitchell, were involved in the rape of Sykes. In December, 2003, Rabil’s further efforts forced more DNA testing that led to the arrest of the true killer, and the release of Hunt. Since 2003, Rabil has been an assistant capital defender in North Carolina and represents individuals who are charged with first-degree murder and face the death penalty.

More information about the Wake Forest Law Innocence and Justice Clinic can be found here.