Innocent and locked up

When musician Bill Dillon takes to the stage Wednesday in the Genome Sciences Building for the distinguished speaker series on innocence, justice and the death penalty, he will share his story of the wrongful conviction that kept him locked up in a Florida prison for 27 years of his life.

His story of wrongful conviction and serving years of time for a crime he did not commit is all too common.

The Innocence Project, an organization that works to free wrongfully convicted prisoners through DNA testing, made Dillon’s exoneration possible.

And in North Carolina, organizations like the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence coordinate with law schools around the state to help prisoners appeal their convictions.

Since its inception in 1992, the Innocence Project and organizations like it have cleared the names, reputations and records of 302 prisoners.

Nearly 200 of those prisoners were African-American.

Amnesty International reports that in cases in which the victim is white, African-American defendants receive the death penalty at three times the rate of white defendants.

According to the Equal Justice Institute, studies of jury selection processes in eight Southern states found that racial discrimination in jury selection still runs rampant in the South. And a study by the N.C. American Civil Liberties Union found that 40 percent of the defendants on death row in North Carolina were sentenced to die by juries with only one or no people of color.

The racial inequities that exist within not only the North Carolina justice system but also across the nation are plainly horrifying.

Jury trials and sentencing are based on the idealistic notion that the participants in the process hold no prejudices or biases. But based on numerous research studies, that idea is anything but realistic. The current system allows for racial disparities to occur and disregards the significant role race plays in jury selection and sentencing.

North Carolina aimed to redress racial discrimination in the state’s justice system in 2009 with the Racial Justice Act.

The act allows for the presentation of evidence that could prove that race was a significant factor in imposing the death penalty. If race is found to be a significant factor in sentencing, the defendant is resentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

The effectiveness of the act has been threatened by a 2012 revision to the act which limited the sort of data that would be admissible as proof of racial bias or discrimination.

The revision has essentially watered down the act’s intent by deeming statistical data about racial bias or the race of the victim insufficient in proving that race played a role in sentencing.

Acknowledgement of the racial disparity that exists in the North Carolina justice system is the starting point of a journey to correct a broken system.

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