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Repeal of Racial Justice Act passes House, stuck in Senate

Following through on a campaign promise from last year’s battle for control of the state legislature, victorious House Republicans voted Thursday to repeal North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act.

UPDATE: In a big surprise, Senate leaders said they will not take up the bill before adjournment.

"When we come back in May, I guess we will pick it up then," said Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Republican from Hendersonville. "We had our schedule for tonight, and that was not on it. I want to go to the mountains."

Approved in a 2009 party-line vote when Democrats were in charge, the act allows an inmate facing the death penalty to file an appeal asking a judge to consider whether racial prejudice played a role in his or her sentence. If such evidence is compelling, the law gives state judges the discretion to commute sentences from death to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

In a 63-53 vote that fell along party lines, the House passed Senate Bill 9, “No Discriminatory Purpose in Death Penalty,” which repeals the Racial Justice Act. The bill now returns to the Senate.

On Thursday, House Republicans said the new law had resulted in clogged courts as nearly every inmate on death row had filed a Racial Justice appeal.

“This basically put a moratorium on the death penalty,” said Rep. Justin Burr, a Republican from Albemarle. “The legislation will move North Carolina back in the right direction. We are one of only two states who have a law like this, and that’s two too many.”

Democrats countered by citing statistics that blacks convicted of killing whites are 3.5 times more likely to get the death penalty than whites.

The law was a major campaign issue in last year’s election, with the N.C. Republican Party sending fliers to voters in the home districts of Democrats falsely suggesting the the act would result in murderers being released from death row to move in next door.

Rep. Larry Womble, a Democrat from Winston-Salem who was one of the act’s original sponsors two years ago, said Thursday was a sad moment in the struggle for equal rights.

“This is reminiscent of the civil rights era, when efforts to ensure equal treatment and fairness were called threats to order in society,” said Womble, who is black, during the floor debate. “Then, as now, fear is the central theme of these efforts. ... This law is not soft on crime. People who prove they were the victims of racial discrimination will still have to spend the rest of their life in prison. Not a single inmate will be released from prison as a result of this law.”

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