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Professors urge leaving Racial Justice Act intact

In reaction to Republican senators filing a bill that on Wednesday that would repeal the Racial Justice Act, 73 professors from across North Carolina have signed a statement urging legislators to leave the capital punishment law intact.

“If this bill is enacted, North Carolina would become, in the eyes of the nation, the state that was presented with clear evidence of racial bias in capital sentencing and chose to look away,” the statement reads. “Our lawmakers should work to eliminate the role of race in the death penalty, rather than repealing the law that uncovered the problem.”

The Democrat-controlled General Assembly passed the Racial Justice Act in 2009, permitting the use of statistics to challenge death sentences. A judge would have to be convinced that there was racial bias in the prosecution, jury selection or sentencing, and then could reduce the sentence to life in prison without parole.

Trial lawyers' legislative wish-list

The state’s trial lawyers have released their legislative agenda for the upcoming session of the General Assembly. The wish-list seeks to advance protections for injured people who sue, reduce what it sees as heavy-handed criminal laws, resist “tort reform,” and narrow the use of the death penalty.

Here are some of the highlights:

Second-degree murder penalties would increase in bill on governor's desk

Defeating the Racial Justice Act wasn’t the only victory the state’s prosecutors enjoyed this session. They also saw the passage of a bill that increases the penalty for most second-degree murder convictions.

Legislature overrides veto of bill revamping the Racial Justice Act

UPDATED: The state Senate and House on Monday overrode Gov. Bev Perdue's veto of the bill rewriting the Racial Justice Act, meaning it becomes law.

The 31-11 Senate vote came after a 15-minute debate that covered familiar ground. The House later voted 72-48, just enough to meet the three-fifths majority required.

Senate approves Racial Justice Act rewrite

The Senate, as expected on Wednesday, approved the House rewrite of the Racial Justice Act that renders the 2009 law nearly useless.

The 30 to 18 vote along party lines sends the bill to Gov. Bev Perdue, who vetoed an attempt last year to repeal the Racial Justice Act. Both the Senate and the House have just enough votes to sustain an override if Perdue vetoes this bill.

She has until June 30 to veto the bill or let it become law.

Path cleared to Senate vote on Racial Justice Act rewrite

If there was any doubt that the Senate would go along with the House rewrite of the Racial Justice Act it was laid to rest Wednesday when a Senate committee gave it thumbs-up.

Racial Justice Act supporters ask Senate to halt rewrite

About two dozen state legislators, members of Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation and others held a news conference Thursday morning to denounce the House vote on Wednesday rewriting the Racial Justice Act.

They called it a complete repeal of the 2009 law, which allows death-row inmates to use statistical proof of racial bias in North Carolina jury selection to try to turn their sentences into life without parole. The bill so weakens the use of statistics as to make them nearly useless in most cases.

Rep. Earline Parmon, a Winston-Salem Democrat who was one of the original sponsors of the Racial Justice Act, called the vote “appalling” for “knowingly allowing racial discrimination to continue in our justice system.”

Three people whose relatives were murdered criticized the vote and called for the Senate to put the brakes on the bill. The Senate is expected to pass the bill along party lines. Five House Democrats voted for the bill, ensuring enough votes to override a veto, if the governor does that.

Darryl Hunt, the Winston-Salem man who spent more than 19 years in prison for a rape and murder that DNA later showed he did not commit, said Republicans’ claim that statistics are irrelevant in individual cases is wrong.

“I lived through four jury trials,” Hunt said. “I know how they use race to excuse African-Americans on juries.”

“I hope and pray our senators will not take up this bill,” he added.

House gives final OK to Racial Justice Bill rewrite

The House gave final approval Wednesday to a bill that hobbles the Racial Justice Act. The vote followed another lengthy debate on a day that drew a full House – literally, the entire House of Representatives showed up. The vote was 73 to 47 along party lines, with five conservative Democrats breaking ranks to vote with Republicans.

The bill now goes to the Senate, where it is expected to pass. Last year Gov. Bev Perdue vetoed a bill that was meant to torpedo the Racial Justice Act, which allows death-row inmates to use statistical proof of widespread racial bias in North Carolina capital case prosecutions to convert their sentence to life in prison without parole.

The Senate overrode the veto but the House didn’t have the votes to try. This new attempt at getting rid of the 2009 law was fashioned as a compromise, worked out in private, aimed at convincing the conservative Democrats to break ranks.

The votes on Tuesday and Wednesday show the House has the 72 votes needed for an override, if Perdue vetoes this bill.

Rep. Tim Moore, a Republican from Cleveland County, said on the House floor Wednesday that if there is evidence of racial bias in someone’s trial the solution isn’t converting the sentence to life in prison but in having a whole new trial.

Rep. Deborah Ross, a Democrat from Raleigh, said supporters of the bill were disingenuous when they said it was just an amendment and not a demolishing of the 2009 law. “There is absolutely no question at all under the law that this bill repeals the Racial Justice Act,” Ross said. “… Just don’t go home and lie about it.”

Special Racial Justice Act committee meets

The House of Representatives committee appointed to see if a compromise to the Racial Justice Act can be crafted held its first meeting today, with Democrats questioning why it was happening and the usual lineup of pro and con speakers restating their opinions.

Racial Justice Act opponents try to enlist Wayne County ruling

Some on the right side of the political divide – state Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and the state chapter of Americans for prosperity, to be precise – want everyone to know that a convicted killer in Wayne County was taken off death row on Thursday and could be eligible for parole.

“Exactly why we said RJA is dangerous,” Berger’s office tweeted this afternoon, referring to the Racial Justice Act. “Killer taken off death row and made parole eligible,” tweeted ASP.

Not only was this not a Racial Justice Act claim – Marvin Williams’ death sentence was vacated because he is mentally retarded – but parole is not an option for inmates who succeed in getting off death row under the two-year-old law.

Republican lawmakers and the state’s prosecutors say someone sentenced at the time that parole was still an option in first-degree murder cases, before 1994, could theoretically end up going free. But while Williams will be eligible for parole consideration – none of the 16 inmates who have already been spared execution because they were deemed retarded have been paroled – the RJA specifies that life without parole is the only option for a successful claim.

Opponents say some judge somewhere could see it differently, but supporters say that’s absurd and have far more authoritative case law to back up their viewpoint.

The first test of the Racial Justice Act is currently under way in Cumberland County.

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