Ministers challenge DA on racial justice stance

by Keith Barber

The Ministers Conference of Winston-Salem and Vicinity have increased pressure on Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill to disavow a Nov. 14 letter sent by the NC Con- ference of District Attorneys to NC Sen. Phil Berger urging state legislators to support Senate Bill 9, which critics say amounts to a repeal of the Racial Justice Act.

O’Neill is one of 43 state district attorneys who signed the letter composed by Susan Boyle, president of the NC Conference of District Attorneys. There are 44 district attorneys in the state. District Attorney Robert A. Evans of the NC Seventh Prosecutorial District withdrew his name from the letter.

During a press conference last week, the Rev. Marina A. Skin ner read aloud a letter the Ministers Conference hand-delivered to O’Neill on Dec. 15. In the letter, the Ministers Conference members request that O’Neill follow Evans’ example and withdraw his signature from the Nov. 14 letter. The ministers are also requesting O’Neill issue a public apology for his initial support of the letter.

“The inflammatory letter you signed is very disturbing, especially since your coming into office was predicated upon being a fair-minded moderate and not a flagrant extremist,” the Ministers Conference letter states.

In her letter to Berger, Doyle says the Racial Justice Act saddles the state’s courts with litigation “that will crush an already under-funded and overburdened system.” Doyle further states that death-row inmates who prevail on a Racial Justice Act claim could be set free and the Racial Justice Act would “put an end to the death penalty in our state.”

Since the Racial Justice Act was signed into law in 2009, 156 of 158 death row inmates have filed motions for relief. Under the Racial Justice Act, defendants appealing their death sentences have to show that race was a factor in their sentencing in one of three ways: Death sentences were sought or imposed more frequently against people of one race than people of another race; death sentences were sought or imposed more frequently as punishment for capital offenses against people of one race than people of another race; or race was a significant factor in prosecutors’ decisions to disqualify potential jurors.

In their letter to O’Neill, members of the Ministers Conference refute Doyle’s letter, stating that it lies about a number of things, including the claim that death-row inmates are manipulating statis- tics to gain relief, the claim that the law cripples the state’s criminal justice system, and the claim that death-row inmates could be freed under the act.

The Racial Justice Act states that defendants may use “statistical evidence or other evidence, including, but not limited to, sworn testimony of attorneys, prosecutors, law enforcement officers, jurors, or other members of the criminal justice system,” to make their case for relief.

It further states that if the court finds race was a significant factor in decisions to seek or impose the sentence of death in the county, prosecutorial district, or state at the time the death sentence was sought or imposed, the court shall order that a death sentence not be sought and the defendant be re-sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

“We are deeply saddened by your actions because we had hoped our leading legal officer would be bending over backwards to ensure racial bias would not factor into any cases, especially capital ones,” the Ministers Conference states in its letter.