Under the Dome

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.

The bill is the second attempt by Republicans in the General Assembly to undo the 2009 Racial Justice Act, which allowed death-row inmates to petition to reduce their sentences to life without parole by using statistical proof of racial bias in their prosecution, sentencing or jury selection.

The new bill, written by House Majority Leader Paul "Skip" Stam of Apex, severely restricts the use of statistics to only the county or judicial district where the crime occurred, instead of the entire state or region. It also says statistics alone are insufficient to prove bias, and that the race of the victim cannot be taken into account.

A major statistical study found that prosecutors in North Carolina were more than twice as likely to strike black jurors as they were white jurors, and that juries were more than 2 ½ times as likely to sentence a defendant to death if at least one of the victims was white. Nearly all of the state's death-row prisoners have filed Racial Justice Act claims.

Last year the General Assembly passed a bill that would have gutted the Racial Justice Act, but the governor vetoed it. The Senate overrode the veto but the House didn’t have to votes to try.

Prosecutors, adamant that they are not biased, contended the 2009 law was really an attempt by death-penalty opponents to bring a halt once and for all to executions in North Carolina, which has not put an inmate to death since 2006 because of unrelated legal challenges. Democrats and all of the black legislators in the General Assembly opposed the new bill, saying it gutted the 2009 law.

In April, a Cumberland County judge found that racial bias played a part in the case of Marcus Robinson, the first Racial Justice Act case to advance through the courts. Robinson’s sentence was converted to life without parole. The bill would affect all other cases.

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