Prosecutors hail revision of bias law

The legislature votes to repeal key parts of the Racial Justice Act. Will Perdue veto the repeal?

cjarvis@newsobserver.comNovember 30, 2011 

  • 2009 Racial Justice Act

    Allowed death-row inmates to use statistical evidence - by county, judicial district or statewide - to show racial discrimination in how they were charged or sentenced.

    Established a procedure for hearings on motions that inmates bring under this law.

    No Discriminatory Purpose in the Death Penalty (SB9), passed Monday

    Would repeal the section of the Racial Justice Act that allowed statistical evidence, and nullify the hearing procedure section.

    Would revert state law to what it was prior to the Racial Justice Act: Defendants could try to prove at trial or in subsequent motions that prosecutors or jurors acted with discriminatory intent.

    Would emphasize that the burden of proof is on the defendant, using language from a 1987 U.S. Supreme Court decision that rejected a claim of racial bias based on a statistical study.

— The state's prosecutors and Republican lawmakers rejoiced at Monday's Senate vote to repeal the heart of the Racial Justice Act. Now attention turns to the governor.

Will she veto it or not?

In 2009, Gov. Bev Perdue signed the bill into law in a public ceremony flanked by key Democratic lawmakers, members of the African-American caucuses in the General Assembly and the NAACP. She proclaimed that the new law, which allowed convicted murderers to use statistical arguments to get off death row, would help prevent racism in prosecution and sentencing.

Perdue, speaking at an event Tuesday in Charlotte, did not tip her hand. She said she would be talking to crime victims' families.

"I'm a real strong supporter of the death penalty," Perdue said. "We should not allow discrimination based on race, poverty or any other factor to infect the criminal justice system. I'm thinking about it hard."

Even though the governor faces a tough re-election bid next year and wouldn't want to appear soft on crime, supporters of the Racial Justice Act are cautiously optimistic that will she stay firmly in the territory she staked out two years ago.

House Minority Leader Joe Hackney, in a statement Tuesday, said Perdue probably would veto the bill. Democratic Sens. Doug Berger of Youngsville and Floyd McKissick of Durham said Tuesday they are optimistic she will use her veto stamp.

"We're fairly sure she's going to veto," NAACP attorney Al McSurely said. "Her support was critical in getting (the Racial Justice Act) passed."

Perdue has 30 days to decide. If she doesn't veto it or sign it, the bill becomes law without her signature. If she vetoes, then the General Assembly probably will be ripe for another override fight. It's not certain legislators can muster the votes, however.

The Senate might not have any trouble overriding the veto. It needs 30 votes for the three-fifths majority necessary. The chamber passed the bill Monday 27-17, with four Republicans and two Democrats absent. A party-line vote with everybody present would give senators more than enough to override.

It would be harder in the House, where 72 votes are needed. The House mustered 64 Republican votes in favor of the bill, while all 52 Democrats voted against it; three Republicans were absent. House GOP leaders would need a scenario in which they retain all those votes and perhaps woo all five renegade Democrats who have broken ranks with their party on other issues. That would eke out 72 votes, but it's unlikely.

Campaigns are under way already to sway the governor. The NAACP called on her to veto and also called on the House Democrats to stick together to resist an override. People of Faith Against the Death Penalty issued a public statement Tuesday night calling on Perdue to veto.

The N.C. Conference of District Attorneys has been working for a long time to take the statistical evidence wording out of the Racial Justice Act. The prosecutors will ask Perdue to sign the bill, SB9, Executive Director Peg Dorer said Tuesday.

Charlotte Observer staff writer Jim Morrill contributed.

Jarvis: 919-829-4576

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service