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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.”

Executions bill leads to emotional debate

Judges would be allowed to consider whether racial bias played a role in the decision to seek or impose the death penalty, according to a bill on which the N.C. House voted Tuesday evening after a long and emotionally charged debate.

"This is a fairness bill," said Rep. Larry Womble, the Winston-Salem Democrat who helped champion the bill. "If we're going to kill people, we must be as fair and objective as we can. This allows one more chance for justice to be blind. ... It's not a get-out-of-jail free card for anybody."

Democrats cited studies showing blacks are far more likely to be sentenced to death in North Carolina than whites. Further, a defendant is 3.5 times more likely to face the death penalty when the victim is white than when the victim is black.

Republicans strongly oppose the measure, saying its passage will clog the courts with frivolous appeals, cost millions and impose a de facto moratorium on executions.

"This bill is not really about race," said Rep. Paul Stam of Wake County, the minority leader. "It's about the death penalty."

The N.C. Racial Justice Act passed its second reading in the House 61-55, with every Republican and four Democrats voting no.

A final House vote could come today, and the bill would then return to the Senate, where it may have a difficult time gaining approval and may require a compromise. That's because the House version left out a section of the Senate bill designed to help remove obstacles that have effectively halted executions for two years. Senate leaders said that provision must be included for the Racial Justice Act to pass that chamber. (N&O)

Racial justice

A defendant who is sentenced to death could challenge the sentence on the basis of racial discrimination under a bill approved tonight by the state House.

House members voted 62-54 to approve the "North Carolina Racial Justice Act," which would create a procedure for defendants condemned to death to present evidence of racial discrimination, reports Mark Johnson of The Charlotte Observer. The defendant would have to prove that race was a factor in sentencing, which could include statistical evidence that capital punishment was imposed more frequently on people of one race over another.

"This is not a (death penalty) moratorium bill. We just want to make sure we are fair and we are reliable in what we do here in North Carolina," said Rep. Larry Womble, a Winston-Salem Democrat and sponsor of the bill.

The judge in the case would hold a hearing on the claim of racial bias, and prosecutors could present rebuttal arguments. Opponents said the bill tries to circumvent juries and creates a quota
system in which prosecutors will be compelled to seek the death penalty against the statistically appropriate number of minority defendants.

"We don't punish people based on groups," said Rep. Paul Stam of Apex, the House Republican leader. "We don't exonerate people based on groups."

The bill now goes to the Senate.

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