Posted Dec 14, 2012 12:39 pm CST
A North Carolina judge reduced three death sentences to life in prison on Thursday, spurring an outburst by a brother of one of the victims, a slain state trooper.
Judge Gregory Weeks of Cumberland County cited racial bias in sentencing and voided the death sentences under the state’s revised Racial Justice Act, the New York Times reports. A prior version of the law allowed statistics alone to prove bias; the new version allows death sentences to be changed to life without parole if race was “a significant factor” in sentencing. Statistics used must focus on the county or district when the defendant was tried.
Weeks cited handwritten notes in which prosecutors recorded the race of potential jurors, as well as statistics showing peremptory challenges were used to strike more blacks than whites from juries. Some of the notes appeared to associate black jurors with drug and alcohol use, despite a lack of evidence, the Times says.
A study by Michigan State University had found that, statewide, blacks were removed at a rate more than twice that of whites, and the rate was even higher in Cumberland County, the Times says.
After the judge acted, the state trooper’s brother shouted an expletive, report the Fayetteville Observer and WRAL. “Judge, you had your mind made up” from the beginning, he said. The man was removed from the courtroom.