This week, the entire nation was introduced to Governor Bev Perdue’s pet monster, the vicious killer she’s protecting by blocking the door to the execution chamber for killers just like him.
By now you’ve probably seen death row inmate Danny Hembree Jr.’s mug jeering at you on national TV, as he laughs at the North Carolina death penalty system. People around the country are watching aghast as Hembree mocks the inability of the state justice system to carry out his death sentence. In a letter to the Gaston Gazette, he wrote this:
Is the public aware that the chances of my lawful murder taking place in the next 20 years if ever are very slim?” Hembree asked. “Is the public aware that I am a gentleman of leisure, watching color TV in the a/c, reading, taking naps at will, eating three well-balanced meals a day?” … Kill me if you can, suckers. Ha! Ha! Ha!”
What hasn’t clearly been explained to people is that it is mainly our governor’s veto of the overhaul of the Racial Justice Act that will keep this man alive long after he exhausts his traditional appeals and the state resolves its other issues surrounding the death penalty, which have resulted in a temporary moratorium.
As usual, the media largely missed the big story here — namely that it is now essentially impossible to kill Hembree in North Carolina because he murdered a teenager who happened to be white. Thanks to North Carolina’s obscene Racial Justice Act, passed in 2009, killing a white woman has essentially become an act exempt from the death penalty. Why? Because you are more likely to get the death penalty if you kill a white woman than a minority in this state, studies show. Therefore, carrying out the execution would be discriminatory and thus illegal under the RJA.
That Hembree is also white won’t matter. That Hembree is guilty as sin won’t either. Under the RJA, if you can prove statistically that your race or the race of your victim made it more likely that you would get the death penalty, you can get your death sentence reduced to life in prison.
Gaston County District Attorney Locke Bell told the Los Angeles Times that thanks to the Racial Justice Act, Hembree could also use statistics to get out the death penalty and have his death sentence reduced to life in prison in a myriad of other ways:
“Hembree, who is white, could point out that seven of eight death row inmates from Gaston County are white, Bell said. “Statistically, he could argue that Gaston County discriminates against white defendants,” Bell said.
And off death row he goes, just like that, even if he is guilty as sin. It is a sick system that devalues the lives of murder victims, placing more emphasis on the color of their skin and that of their killers than in protecting the public or punishing the guilty.
It’s clear that Hembree, who was sentenced to death two months ago in Gaston County, intends to use the Racial Justice Act to stay alive. He has already begun building a record of racial prejudice against him, parts of the Gazette article show.
Hembree, who could possibly turn out to be a serial killer, is now attempting to involve the NAACP in two other murder cases he is accused in, those of Randi Dean Saldana, who was white, and Deborah Ratchford, was black.
Along with the suggested editorial, Hembree sent a copy of a three-page letter that he said he intends to send to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
In the NAACP letter, Hembree tells of his conviction and pending murder charges. Hembree suggests that the NAACP get involved because the cases of the two white women are being tried first.
Catterton and Saldana were each killed in 2009. Ratchford’s body was found in a Gastonia cemetery in 1992.
In his letter, Hembree says that Gaston County District Attorney Locke Bell has no intention of taking the Ratchford case to court. Hembree suggests in his letter that Bell’s intent is racially motivated.
“I implore your great organization to pressure Mr. Bell until he gives Debora Ratchford her day in court in the interest of justice,” he wrote.
Using the RJA to tie up the courts is a strategy so effective that will likely work to keep Hembree and most of the other killers on the state’s death row alive long after the exhaust their other appeals if it remains in place. In fact, the Racial Justice Act is now so popular, most death row inmates are using it.
Charlotte School of Law Professor Cindy Adcock said it could be ten years, if not longer, before Hembree is up for execution. She said some inmates in North Carolina have been on death row for decades.
“Most of the cases, most of the inmates on death row are being litigated around the racial justice act,” said Adcock. “That will have to be resolved before any case goes forward towards execution.”
Meanwhile, the families of the victims are left to deal with the agony this has caused.
Gaston County District Attorney Locke Bell said that he has received two distraught phone calls from Catterton’s father today.
“I got a call from the father of the 17-year-old that he murdered, in tears. He said that this is tearing the family to shreds. This is ripping the wound open,” Locke told ABCNews.com. “[The father] said, ‘He murdered our daughter, got the death penalty and now he’s just sitting in jail laughing at us.’”