For Immediate Release: May 19, 2021
For More Information Contact: Gretchen Engel, Executive Director, 919-682-3983
Raleigh, NC — On Thursday, May 20, North Carolina will hold the first hearing under the Racial Justice Act since the state Supreme Court decided in June that people on North Carolina’s death row are entitled to present evidence of racism in their trials despite the legislature’s repeal of the RJA.
Hassan Bacote, one of 137 death row prisoners in North Carolina, will have a hearing in Wake County Superior Court at 10 a.m. Thursday. His case is from Johnston County. The hearing will center around his requests for the state’s jury selection notes, training records and other documents. The state has also requested information about the statistical analyses Bacote relied on.
In other cases, these records have shown that prosecutors wrote disparaging notes about jurors of color like “blk wino” or “blk, high drug” and that they attended training sessions designed to help them evade laws prohibiting race discrimination in jury selection. At these sessions, prosecutors were taught to give vague excuses for their exclusion of Black jurors, including body language or failure to make eye contact.
Bacote has already submitted evidence that Johnston County prosecutors at his 2010 trial excluded qualified Black jurors at more than three times the rate of white jurors. Statewide, a study found that Black jurors are struck at twice the rate of whites, meaning the discrimination in Bacote’s case was even more pronounced than the state average.
“Hassan Bacote is a Black man who was sentenced to death for a crime he committed as a teenager in a county known for Ku Klux Klan activity,” said Gretchen M. Engel, executive director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation. “We already know that the state made a great effort to keep Black people off his jury. We look forward to digging even deeper into the evidence to see how racism affected this case.”
Bacote’s case could set a precedent for how Racial Justice Act cases are handled going forward. The 2009 law allowed death-sentenced people to present evidence of race discrimination and, if they proved that race affected their sentences, be resentenced to life without parole. However, the RJA was repealed in 2013 after the first four death row prisoners won their cases. In the years since, all claims were on hold while the courts determined whether they were still valid after the repeal.
In June, the N.C. Supreme Court forcefully affirmed that all existing Racial Justice Act claims should be heard in court. Justice Anita Earls wrote that racial discrimination in criminal cases “undermines the integrity of our judicial system and extends to society as a whole.”
“We are thrilled that this litigation is beginning to move forward,” Engel said. “It’s critical that our courts examine the striking evidence of discrimination in death penalty trials, and that no one is executed based on a judgment tainted by racism.”
The hearing will be held at 10:00 am at the Wake County Courthouse, Courtroom 704, the Honorable Wayland J. Sermons Jr. presiding.