NC House vote moves Racial Justice Act closer to repeal

lbonner@newsobserver.com June 4, 2013 

The legislature took another step Tuesday toward wiping out a signature law that allows convicted killers to be spared the death penalty if they can show court decisions tainted by racial bias.

The 77-40 vote in the state House was largely along party lines, with one Democrat joining all Republicans to repeal the law called the Racial Justice Act. The preliminary vote – the House will likely take another vote Wednesday – came after more than an hour of debate.

“Every once in awhile, you will cast a vote in which history will be made,” said Rep. Rick Glazier, a Fayetteville Democrat.

The law’s supporters read names of men wrongly convicted of murder, while it’s detractors recited names of murder victims.

“Keep in your minds the victims of the heinous, heartless, cold-hearted killers,” said Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Cary Republican.

The 2009 law allowed people sentenced to death to use statistical evidence to show that race played a significant part in their trial or in the prosecutor’s decision to seek the death penalty. Successful challengers have their death sentences commuted to life in prison.

Last year, the legislature weakened the law by narrowing the use of statistics. The bill moving through the legislature this year would erase the law. The bill would also prevent regulatory boards from penalizing doctors, nurses and other health care professionals from assisting in executions. In 2007, the N.C. Medical Board said it would punish doctors that participated in executions. State law requires that a doctor be present. The N.C. Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that the board had exceeded its authority.

When the bill passes the House, it must go back to the Senate for a vote of agreement before it’s sent to Gov. Pat McCrory.

Racial Justice Act supporters said it has exposed racial bias, and so far, has led to findings that prosecutors improperly prevented African-Americans from serving on juries.

“None of us should want to execute any person whose sentence is based on racial discrimination,” said Alma Adams, a Greensboro Democrat.

A Cumberland County judge found last year that jury selection in four death row inmates’ cases was tainted by conclusive evidence of racism. More than 150 death row inmates filed challenges under the 2009 version of the law. The bill debated Tuesday would invalidate more than 140 of the claims that have not been heard in court.

The law’s detractors said it was flawed from the beginning. One of the reasons they gave was that white defendants convicted of murdering white people by all white or nearly all white juries can claim racial bias.

Decisions about the death penalty should be made on the facts of each case, critics said, not on a statistics. They contend that the real intent of the law was to put a moratorium on the death penalty.

“No one wants actual racial discrimination,” said House Speaker Pro Tem Paul Stam, an Apex Republican. “We don’t want race to be used as a pretext to stop the death penalty.”

Rep. Leo Daughtry, a Smithfield Republican, defended the justice system, saying he hasn’t seen the race-based decisions the law’s supporters described.

Some people on death row have been there since 1985, Daughtry said.

“We ought to have justice that’s swift and sure,” he said.

Bonner: 919-829-4821

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