Racial Justice and the Administration of the Death Penalty

Catherine M. Grosso and Barbara O’Brien, Michigan State University College of Law 

Center for Death Penalty Litigation

In response to the passage of the North Carolina Racial Justice Act in 2009 (RJA), the Center for Death Penalty Litigation (CDPL), a nonprofit law firm that serves indigent capital defendants in North Carolina, invited Catherine Grosso and Barbara O’Brien to design and conduct two studies—a jury selection study and a capital charging and sentencing study—in a single calendar year. Their completed research, presented as evidence in North Carolina RJA hearings and published in two law review articles, garnered significant national attention and eventually led to the removal of defendants from death row. Grosso and O’Brien provide ongoing research support to the trial bar in North Carolina. CDPL assists trial teams to marshal data from the RJA litigation for use in challenging the exclusion of African Americans from capital juries. O’Brien and Grosso originally prepared several dozen affidavits for individual defendants based on their initial research, and have completed many more since then. A recent decision of the North Carolina Supreme Court allowed death sentenced prisoners to challenge the influence of race on the prosecution of their cases. O’Brien and Grosso’s research will be at the center of every new case. This research has also been used to inform jury selection reforms in Washington State and California.