By Letitia Stein
(Reuters) – The North Carolina Supreme Court on Friday ordered new hearings for four former death row inmates, who were resentenced to life in prison without parole, under a short-lived and unique state law that helped them to prove racial bias affected their cases.
The high court’s rulings affected inmates whose sentences were changed under the 2009 Racial Justice Act, which at the time was the only law of its kind in the United States.
Repealed in 2013, it briefly permitted death-row inmates to cite statistics to demonstrate that racial discrimination factored into their punishment.
In a narrow ruling, the state’s high court found that prosecutors should have received more time to review a key statistical study presented, said attorney Ken Rose at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham, North Carolina, which represents death row inmates.
The ruling did not overturn a lower court’s finding that discrimination in jury selection had tainted their trials, the center said in statement, calling the latest development “legal technicalities.”
“This decision contemplates the possibility of several years further litigation and potentially millions of dollars on a broken system,” Rose told Reuters in a phone interview.
The state supreme court ruling also found that three of the cases should have been heard separately, he noted.
Rose said the ruling did not appear to have reversed the sentences of the four men, who were removed from death row in 2012, but opened the possibility for a lower court to do so.
North Carolina has not carried out a death sentence since 2006, he noted, and state courts have stayed all executions pending ongoing litigation concerning the Racial Justice Act.
The North Carolina Attorney General’s office declined to comment on a ruling that involved ongoing litigation.