RALEIGH — The state Senate on Monday rewrote the Racial Justice Act, a two-year-old law that allowed death-row inmates to use statistical evidence of racial bias to challenge their sentences.
On a 27-17 vote, senators approved Senate Bill 9, titled No Discriminatory Purpose in the Death Penalty. It now goes to Gov. Bev Perdue. There was no immediate word on whether the governor would sign the bill.
Perdue did sign the Racial Justice Act into law in 2009, saying it would ensure death sentences were imposed "based on the facts and the law, not racial prejudice."
Republican lawmakers and the state's prosecutors tried to minimize the impact of the new law, insisting it was only a fix. "This is not a repeal of the Racial Justice Act," Sen. Thom Goolsby, a Republican from Wilmington, said on the Senate floor. "It's a reform, a modification."
But earlier in the day, in response to a question from Sen. Josh Stein, a Raleigh Democrat, the Senate staff acknowledged that passing the bill, SB9, returned the law to what it was before the Racial Justice Act went into effect.
"This is an utter and total repeal," Stein said.
The vote followed a public hearing before a Senate judiciary committee in which impassioned pleas were made on both sides of the issue from the families of murder victims and from death-penalty opponents.
The state's district attorneys in recent weeks stepped up a campaign that they have been waging against the two-year-old law. The campaign took on a new urgency because the first case is scheduled to be heard in January in Cumberland County. Prosecutors unsuccessfully tried to have the judge hearing the case removed. Failing that, they submitted to legislators a resolution signed by all but one of the district attorneys in the state calling for immediate changes to the act.
All but three of the 157 people currently on death row have sought hearings under the new law, including cases that seemed to have nothing to do with race. But a study found murder defendants were 2 1/2 times more likely to be sentenced to death if at least one of the victims was white, and raised questions about how frequently blacks are excluded from serving on juries.
The prosecutors have insisted that anywhere from two dozen to nearly 120 inmates now on death row could be eligible for parole under the law, even though the Racial Justice Act specifies that the only option available for an inmate who has had a death sentence commuted is life in prison without parole. Both sides cite different court cases to prove their point.
The campaign continued earlier Monday when 16 prosecutors and several families of murder victims held a news conference in the statehouse to emphasize the emotion behind the debate. Relatives recounted the crimes in raw, gut-wrenching details:
A father told of his 11-year-old daughter who had been raped, chased across a field and her throat slashed. A sister recounted the execution of her brother, a Johnston County sheriff's deputy whose last words to the gunman were, "Please don't."
Many of those same people also spoke at the Senate committee hearing in the afternoon. To make their case, both sides used African-Americans, as crime victims, as prosecutors, as the wrongly accused.
Darryl Hunt reminded the committee that he was one of the seven death-row inmates who have been exonerated; five of them, like him, were African-American. He spent 19 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit.
"I was one vote away from the death penalty," Hunt said. "I had 11 whites and one black on my jury. If you think that race did not play a factor in my case, then you're not living here in North Carolina."
Goolsby referred on the Senate floor to the remarks by victims' families.
"We have a moral obligation to make sure justice is served in these cases," he said. "The Racial Justice Act has very little to do with race or justice. Instead, it's turned out to be a Trojan horse, a back-door attempt to end the death penalty in North Carolina."
Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham Democrat who was the primary author of the Racial Justice Act, made his own impassioned speech to defeat the new bill. He asked fellow senators what they would do if they were accused of a crime and each time a prospective juror who was the same race was stricken from the jury. "We've come a very long way over the last 50 years," McKissick said. "We've made a lot of progress as a society and as a country. We can all share in that pride. But there's still remnants that exist, remnants of institutional racism, remnants of hatred in the hearts and minds of people."