NC Senate OKs repeal of Racial Justice Act

cjarvis@newsobserver.com, ablythe@newsobserver.comApril 3, 2013 

— The state Senate on Wednesday voted to repeal the remnants of the Racial Justice Act, the third attempt in three years to erase the 2009 law that allows convicted killers to be spared the death penalty if they can prove racial bias in their cases.

Senate Republicans were spurred in their campaign by a Cumberland County judge’s findings last year that jury selection in the cases of four death-row inmates was tainted by conclusive evidence of racism, a ruling that automatically converted their sentences to life in prison without parole. Those were the first four of more than 150 challenges filed under the 2009 version of the law.

Wednesday’s vote was 33-14 – strictly along party lines. Senate Bill 306 now goes to the state House.

The legislation would restart executions in North Carolina, where there has been an unofficial moratorium since 2006. It comes at a time when public support for executions seems to be waning: No jury has sentenced anyone to death in more than a year. The bill also seeks to invalidate the remaining Racial Justice Act claims that have not yet been heard in court – more than 140 in all.

But it could ultimately be up to the courts to determine whether the cases are considered under the law as it was when the inmates sought relief.

“We have a moral obligation to ensure that death-row inmates convicted of the most heinous of crimes imaginable finally face justice in North Carolina,” Sen. Thom Goolsby, the bill’s primary sponsor, said on the Senate floor. “It won’t change the execution landscape overnight, and it certainly won’t rush the legal procedures our law requires. It will provide the certainty that our law currently lacks.”

Arguments on both sides echoed the debates in 2011, when the newly GOP-dominated General Assembly passed a bill gutting the act but could not override the governor’s veto; and the debates in 2012, when a bill severely restricting how the Racial Justice Act could be used survived a veto and became law. With a GOP majority in the House and a Republican governor in office, there is a good chance the bill will become law.

The current law narrows the use of statistics that the Racial Justice Act had allowed to prove bias in the prosecution, jury selection or sentencing in death-penalty cases. It says statistics alone are insufficient to prove bias, and prohibits the race of the victim from being taken into account.

Bill called mean-spirited

A major statistical study found prosecutors in the state were more than twice as likely to remove black members from the pool of potential jurors as they were whites. The study also found 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.

Sen. Gladys Robinson of Guilford County called the proposal “mean-spirited.”

“It’s unnecessary, it’s even unethical,” she said. “We have a lot of work to do in this body, as opposed to pulling up an issue that continues to divide this entire state and continues to put the races of people against each other.”

Senate Democrats twice unsuccessfully attempted to pull the Racial Justice Act repeal section from Goolsby’s bill, which also speeds up executions and protects doctors, nurses and pharmacists from repercussions from state licensing boards for participating in executions.

Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks found evidence that race played a role in jury selection in the capital cases of Marcus Reymond Robinson, Tilmon Golphin, Christina Walters and Quintel Augustin. Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham Democrat, called Weeks’ findings “pretty persuasive, not something we should bury,” and said the judges should be trusted to decide each case individually.

But Sen. Wesley Meredith, a Fayetteville Republican, said Weeks should have recused himself, as the prosecutor requested, from hearing one of the cases that he had previously been involved in.

“If we’re going to be fair and equitable and each one of these cases are going to stand on their own, then why do we need a minority judge who knew the case?” Meredith said. Weeks is African-American.

149 death row claims

Republicans and prosecutors have cited as a serious flaw in the law the fact that almost all of the 152 inmates on death row have filed claims under the act regardless of their race or the race of their victims.

Ken Rose and Tye Hunter, lawyers for the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham, said earlier Wednesday that all but three of the state’s 152 death row inmates have legal challenges either through the Racial Justice Act or a lawsuit that challenges the state’s execution methods as cruel and unusual punishment. Those challenges could ultimately stall any efforts to lift the de facto moratorium, since the challenges could take months if not years.

Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, a Chapel Hill Democrat, said the number of death-penalty cases has plummeted thanks to several years of reforms; last year, she noted, no one was given a death sentence, indicating an erosion of public support for executions.

Death penalty critics also say that North Carolinians should be wary about reinstating executions because more than 100 of the death row inmates were tried before criminal justice reforms giving inmates a right to see all the evidence in their case before trial and better access to competent defense attorneys. Many of the inmates were convicted before DNA testing and other modern tools for forensic analysis were prevalent.

Five wrongfully convicted men have been released from death row since 1999, and it can be years before errors in cases are revealed.

Though North Carolina and Kentucky are the only two states to have Racial Justice Acts, the District Attorney of Dallas County, Texas, said in January that he planned to advocate for a state law based in part, on North Carolina’s, that would allow criminals to appeal a sentence or conviction on the grounds that race played a factor.

Jarvis: 919-829-4576

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