Lawmakers override veto of Racial Justice Act revamp

cjarvis@newsobserver.comJuly 3, 2012 

— The state House on Monday afternoon overrode Gov. Bev Perdue’s veto of the bill rewriting the Racial Justice Act. The 72-48 split followed a 31-11 vote earlier in the day in the Senate.

The Republican-led General Assembly’s rejection of the governor’s veto means the bill becomes law and replaces the 2009 Racial Justice Act.

The bill was the second attempt by Republicans and the state’s prosecutors to undo the Racial Justice Act, which allowed death-row inmates to petition to reduce their sentences to life without parole by using statistical proof of racial bias in their prosecution, sentencing or jury selection.

The new law, written by House Majority Leader Paul “Skip” Stam of Apex, severely restricts the use of statistics to only the county or judicial district where the crime occurred, instead of the entire state or region. It also says statistics alone are insufficient to prove bias, and that the race of the victim cannot be taken into account.

A major statistical study found that prosecutors in North Carolina were more than twice as likely to strike black jurors as they were white jurors, and that juries were more than 2 ½ times as likely to sentence a defendant to death if at least one of the victims was white. Nearly all of the state’s death-row prisoners have filed Racial Justice Act claims.

Last year the General Assembly passed a bill that would have gutted the Racial Justice Act, but the governor vetoed it. The Senate overrode the veto but the House didn’t have to votes to try.

Prosecutors, adamant that they are not biased, contended the 2009 law was really an attempt by death-penalty opponents to bring a halt once and for all to executions in North Carolina, which has not put an inmate to death since 2006 because of unrelated legal challenges. Democrats and all of the black legislators in the General Assembly opposed the new bill, saying it gutted the 2009 law.

In April, a Cumberland County judge found that racial bias played a part in the case of Marcus Robinson, the first Racial Justice Act case to advance through the courts. Robinson’s sentence was converted to life without parole. The bill would affect all other cases.

Jarvis: 919-829-4575

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