RALEIGH — The House of Representatives on Tuesday approved a bill that would substantially weaken the Racial Justice Act.
The 2009 law allows death-row inmates to try to use statistical proof of racial bias by North Carolina prosecutors to convert their sentences to life in prison without parole. The bill approved Tuesday so restricts the use of statistics that they would be useless in most cases.
Statistics could only be used for the county or judicial district where the crime was committed, rather than statewide, and only covering a period of 10 years before the offense and two years after the sentence. Defendants would have to come up with some other evidence to prove bias, as statistics alone would not be enough, under the proposed law.
The 72-47 vote Tuesday would be enough to override a gubernatorial veto. Last year, Gov. Bev Perdue vetoed another bill aimed at dismantling the Racial Justice Act. The margin of victory was accomplished with five conservative Democrats who once again broke party ranks.
The House is expected to give final approval to the bill on Wednesday, and then it will go to the Senate, which also has enough votes for an override if necessary. The Senate overrode the veto in January, but the House didn’t have the votes to do so.
Joining the House Republicans on Wednesday were Democrats Jim Crawford of Oxford, Bill Owens of Elizabeth City, William Brisson of Bladen County, Dewey Hill of Columbus County and Timothy Spear of Washington County. In January, some of those Democrats said they would be willing to vote for a new version of the Racial Justice Act that addressed prosecutors’ concerns and protected against racial bias.
A special House committee was formed to look for a compromise but it only met twice. Instead, this new bill was worked out in private and presented in a committee last week. Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam of Apex, the main sponsor, tweaked the bill to address concerns that were raised last week. Another committee approved the bill Monday night.
Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Republican from Cary, said on the House floor Tuesday the Racial Justice Act was well-intended but has simply allowed convicted killers of any race another avenue to try to avoid the death penalty. The law should be about each case and not statistics, he said.
“This is about monsters,” Dollar said. “Monsters. Evil people doing unspeakable, inhuman acts. That’s what this is about.”
Rep. Angela Bryant, a Democrat from Rocky Mount, answered Dollar.
“Just because we face monsters, we will not ourselves become monsters,” she said. “We are upholding a system of laws that will apply no matter what monsters we face.”
Other Democrats noted that statistics are used commonly in other parts of law.
“This bill simply pays lip service to the notion that we have bias in our justice system, but then proceeds to eviscerate the only way we have of proving it,” said Rep. Rick Glazer, a Democrat from Fayetteville.
Following the vote, Sarah Preston, police director for the American Civil Liberties Union of N.C., issued a statement criticizing legislators for passing a bill that ignores the findings of a Cumberland County Superior Court judge earlier this year that there was overwhelming evidence of racial bias in the state’s capital punishment system.
“This effort is a direct attack on the entire Racial Justice Act, a nationally recognized civil rights law that would be gutted by this bill,” Preston said.