GOP will continue to fight Racial Justice Act, leaders vow

cjarvis@newsobserver.comApril 20, 2012 

  • • Provides a process by which statistical evidence can be used to establish that race was the basis for seeking or obtaining the death penalty.

    • A finding that race was the basis may be established if the court finds that race was a significant factor in decisions to seek or impose the death penalty in the county, the prosecutorial district, or the judicial district at the time the death.

    • Evidence relevant to establish a finding that race was a significant factor may include statistical or other evidence, including sworn testimony of members of the criminal justice system that:

    The death penalty was sought or imposed significantly more frequently for persons of one race than for persons of another race,

    The death penalty was sought or imposed significantly more frequently as punishment for capital offenses against persons of one race than as punishment of capital offenses against persons of another race, or that

    Race was a significant factor in decisions to exercise peremptory challenges during jury selection.

    • The defendant would have the burden of proving that race was a significant factor.

    • The claim can be raised by the defendant at the pretrial conference or in post conviction proceedings, and the court is required to schedule a hearing on the claim.

    • If the court finds that race was a significant factor, the court can order that the death penalty not be sought or that a death sentence not be carried out and the defendant resentenced to life imprisonment without parole.

Republican leaders in the General Assembly said Friday they will continue to try to repeal the Racial Justice Act, regardless of the first court ruling in the controversial law.

The law was emotionally debated before it was enacted in 2009, and those arguments resurfaced last year when a Republican-sponsored drive to gut the law was vetoed by the governor. In January, the Senate overrode the veto but the House didn’t have the necessary votes to do so.

Friday’s decision by Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks to re-sentence convicted murderer Marcus Robinson to life in prison without parole reignited the by-now-familiar arguments.

House Speaker Thom Tillis and House Majority Leader Paul “Skip” Stam, an Apex Republican, released a joint statement:

“Today’s decision by Judge Weeks validates that the Racial Justice Act, enacted by a Democrat-controlled General Assembly, is effectively a moratorium on the death penalty in North Carolina. The Racial Justice Act allowed a convicted murderer to evade justice and punished a suffering family. The leadership of the General Assembly will continue to work to repeal the Racial Justice Act and provide fair and just laws to ensure that only the guilty are punished.”

Meanwhile Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, a Republican from Eden, continues to insist that, based on a previous N.C. Supreme Court ruling, some death-row inmates could actually be freed if they were sentenced before the state had life without the possibility of parole. More extensive case law supports the opposite view: that life in prison would be the only option.

“Despite the judge’s intent, I am deeply concerned that today’s ruling could make Marcus Robinson eligible for parole based on an earlier Supreme Court decision,” Berger said in a statement his office released. “We cannot allow cold-blooded killers to be released into our community, and I expect the state to appeal this decision.”

Democrats, on the other hand, said Weeks’ ruling shows that the law is working as it should.

Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham Democrat who was one of the original authors of the act, praised the ruling.

“I’m gratified to see the judge was able to thoughtfully review the evidence and make an appropriate decision,” McKissick said. “I hope it sends a loud alarm to prosecutors in this state, if they’re seeking to use the death penalty or if they’re striking people from jury duty as a result of race then it’s the wrong thing to do and their actions are subject to review by the court.”

No committee proposals

In January, when the House couldn’t override Gov. Bev Perdue’s veto, Tillis created a committee to see whether there was room for a compromise that would protect the intent of the original law and also address prosecutors’ concerns. The committee has met only once and has not come up with any proposals yet.

Democrats say the law is needed to prevent racial discrimination in death-penalty cases, a claim bolstered by a statistical study showing bias across North Carolina. Republicans say they also want to ensure cases are tried free of bias, but they side with the state’s prosecutors, who say the law is vague, too far-reaching and is really a moratorium on capital punishment.

Prosecutors pushed hard last year for the General Assembly to undo the Racial Justice Act, saying it needed to happen before the first case was heard by a judge. Having lost that battle, Peg Dorer, executive director of the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys, said Friday that prosecutors now are likely to focus their efforts on the compromise committee.

“We will continue to fight for victims and families and protect the citizens of our communities by seeking appropriate punishments, including the death penalty when it is warranted,” Dorer said in a statement.

‘Worked as intended’

House Minority Leader Joe Hackney, a Democrat from Chapel Hill, also issued a statement:

“The Racial Justice Act worked as intended today,” Hackney said. “Mr. Robinson will spend the rest of his life in prison without parole for the crimes he committed. That is appropriate. The courts corrected a death sentence in which race played a significant role. That is also appropriate.”

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