RALEIGH — The Senate, as expected, on Wednesday approved the House rewrite of the Racial Justice Act, which undermines the goal of the 2009 law.
The 30 to 18 vote along party lines sends the bill to Gov. Bev Perdue, who vetoed an attempt last year to repeal the act. Both the Senate and the House have just enough votes to sustain an override if Perdue vetoes this bill.
A spokeswoman for Perdue said the governor hasnt read the bill yet and so cant say what action she will take.
Perdue has until June 30 to veto the bill or let it become law. Republican leaders in the General Assembly have said they plan to adjourn the session on July 2.
If the session ended before the 10-day veto window was up, then the governor would have 30 days to decide. If she vetoed, she would then have to call the legislature back into session to consider an override.
Adherence to that deadline had Democratic senators complaining that the bill was being rushed. It was taken up in a Senate committee earlier Wednesday, and then brought straight to the floor.
Democrats were unsuccessful in asking for a delay of a day so they could read the proposed legislation. Republicans said the bill had received attention in newspapers last week when it was in the House, and that most everyone knew how they were going to vote anyway.
Republicans characterize the bill as a reform to the Racial Justice Act, while Democrats said it guts the law. The 2009 Act allows death-row inmates to attempt to convince judges that racial bias played a part in their prosecution, sentencing or jury selection through the use of statistics that show widespread racism in capital cases in North Carolina.
If successful, a death sentence can be converted to life in prison without parole. Thats what happened in the first test case earlier this year in Fayetteville.
The new bill substantially narrows the use of those statistics limiting them to a time frame of 10 years before the crime and two years after sentencing, and restricting them to the county or judicial district where the offense occurred. It also says statistical proof alone is not enough.
Democrats say it will be impossible to prove racial bias in some other way than through statistical evidence of how prosecutors have handled cases in the past.
Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham Democrat and one of the original sponsors of the Racial Justice Act, said the new bills sponsors were misleading when they called it a compromise. Ill tell you one thing: It was mostly the district attorneys writing this bill, he said.
Sen. Thom Goolsby, a Wilmington Republican and a criminal defense attorney, took issue with the premise that prosecutors are biased. I cant stand by and have remarks made in this chamber that our district attorneys are cheats, crooks and racists, Goolsby said. And thats what weve heard. And they are not.