Racial Justice Act repeal hits a roadblock

Staff WriterJune 17, 2011 

— 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, only to have their bid stall in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Senate leaders said late Thursday that it had been returned to committee and that they are unlikely to take the bill up 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 death sentences to life in prison.

On Thursday, 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 more than twice as likely to get the death penalty as white offenders. "Until 1965, racial discrimination was legal in this state," said Rep. Paul Luebke, a Durham Democrat. "Race discrimination is part of our history, part of our heritage. It is wrong to pretend that racial discrimination does not still exist in this state."

Republican Leader Paul "Skip" Stam said 152 of the 158 inmates on North Carolina's death row had filed appeals under the act, even whites convicted of killing white victims. Stam, a lawyer, said the resulting delay in executions had reduced the effectiveness of the death penalty as a deterrent - leading to more murders.

"There's a real cost in innocent human lives because of this moratorium," said Stam, a Republican from Apex. "This bill has no more to do with racial justice than it would if I called it gender justice. I'm a man. But am I going to go out there and demand that more women be executed in the name of gender equality?"

The law was a major campaign issue last year, with the N.C. Republican Party sending fliers to voters in the home districts of Democrats falsely suggesting 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's House vote 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," Womble, who is black, said 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."

So far no inmate's sentence has been commuted.

Womble then recited Scripture to his colleagues. "I read somewhere in the Bible, love mercy and do justice," he said. "Ladies and gentlemen, I know you are honorable people. Let's do the right thing. Love mercy. Do justice."

His plea fell on deaf ears in the House, which voted 63-53 along party lines to pass Senate Bill 9, "No Discriminatory Purpose in Death Penalty."

michael.biesecker@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4698

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