Perdue calls session to deal with Racial Justice Act

cjarvis@newsobserver.comDecember 21, 2011 

— Gov. Bev Perdue on Tuesday called the General Assembly back into session after the holidays to consider whether to override or let stand her veto of the bill gutting the Racial Justice Act.

Perdue issued a proclamation reconvening the legislature on Jan. 4 to take up Senate Bill 9, which she vetoed Dec. 14. The state Constitution requires that she reconvene the General Assembly to consider any vetoes that are issued while the body is out of session.

The Senate would have to take up the consideration first, since the bill originated in that chamber, and it intends to do so, according to Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger's office. Republicans have enough votes there to override the veto.

But it is highly unlikely that the House has the necessary three-fifths majority to overcome the veto. House Speaker Thom Tillis said last week that he wasn't optimistic it would happen. A spokesman for Tillis said Tuesday that House leaders are polling members just to be sure.

Emotions over the issue are still running high. Late last week, one of the state's district attorneys resigned from the Governor's Crime Commission in protest of the veto.

Angry words from DA

In a blistering letter, District Attorney Richard Shaffer, the Democratic prosecutor for Cleveland and Lincoln counties, slammed Perdue for her veto.

"You no longer have any moral authority to suggest that you strongly support the death penalty," Shaffer wrote. "Your action has shown that particular statement is untrue."

Perdue said in her veto message that she believes in capital punishment but wants to ensure it is administered fairly and free of racial bias. The state's district attorneys contend the Racial Justice Act was merely a backdoor way to suspend the death penalty in North Carolina.

Shaffer was one of 44 members of the crime commission, which influences criminal justice grant funding in the state. It includes the heads of statewide criminal justice and human services agencies, and representatives of law enforcement, the courts, the legislature and the public.

Research for defendants

Shaffer noted in his letter that, while his district has no pending claims under the Racial Justice Act, "the impact of the law as it currently stands is tremendous and devastating." Shaffer wrote that the state Administrative Office of the Courts is helping to pay for statistical experts to help defendants with their claims, while that money should be going to help pay salaries in prosecutors' offices across the state.

There has not been an inmate serving on death row from convictions in Cleveland or Lincoln counties since 2005, when William Powell was executed for killing store clerk Mary Gladden in a robbery. He was sentenced in 1993. Before that, only two inmates from crimes committed in Shaffer's district have been sentenced to death, and both successfully appealed their sentences.

SB9 would have halted the 2-year-old Racial Justice Act, which allows death-row inmates to use statistics to argue that their sentences should be converted to life without parole if they can convince a judge there was racial bias in their prosecution or sentencing.

Jarvis: 919-829-4576

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