A House subcommittee on Wednesday morning approved a bill that would attempt to rewrite the Racial Justice Act again. The bill, which would narrow the use of statistics, was criticized by Democrats on the committee and by death penalty opponents as a way around the veto of last year’s attempt to repeal the act. The House could not muster the votes for an override.
Wednesday’s vote was split 8-6 along party lines. Opponents acknowledged that the bill was probably headed toward passage this month, which would set the stage for another veto.
The bill says that statistical evidence of bias alone is not enough to prove that race was a significant factor in a defendant’s case. While the two-year-old Racial Justice Act says convicted killers can use statewide statistics to prove bias, this bill restricts statistics to the county or prosecutorial district where the death sentence was imposed.
It also limits the time frame for proving bias to two years before the crime was committed to two years after sentencing.
The legislation would also require that a death-row inmate who successfully files a claim under the Racial Justice Act waives his or her right to object to receiving a sentence of life without parole. Some have contended that convicted murderers whose death sentences are thrown out under the act could eventually be freed because they were sentenced before there was life without parole in this state. This would make that impossible.
Under a clarifying amendment, the bill makes it clear that someone can file a claim under the Racial Justice Act and also appeal the case on the grounds that they are innocent. Opponents were concerned the bill would force defendants to give up that right.
“This simply will gut the Racial Justice Act,” said Rep. Earline Parmon, a Democrat from Winston-Salem. “… North Carolina continues to go backwards.”
House Majority Leader Paul “Skip” Stam, a Republican from Apex who helped write the bill, said it would make the law about each case individually rather than about statistical evidence of widespread racial bias on the part of prosecutors.
“The spectacle of virtually every person on death row, who was sentenced to death as a cold-blooded killer” filing claims under the RJA would end, Stam said.