McCrory signs repeal of Racial Justice Act

Associated PressJune 19, 2013 

— Gov. Pat McCrory’s signature Wednesday repealed a landmark law that had allowed convicted murderers to have their sentences reduced to life in prison if they could prove racial bias influenced the outcome of their cases.

McCrory signed a repeal of the 2009 Racial Justice Act, which both proponents and critics say will restart the death penalty in a state that hasn’t executed an inmate since 2006.

McCrory’s final signature followed months of debate between Democrats and Republicans on the law’s intent and the way it has played out. Republicans say it was so poorly crafted that it has allowed nearly all of the state’s 156 death-row inmates to launch appeals under the law regardless of their race. They say the law impedes the will of unanimous jury decisions.

McCrory raised similar complaints in a statement.

“The policy implementation of the law was seriously flawed. Nearly every person on death row, regardless of race, has appealed their death sentence under the Racial Justice Act,” he said. “The state’s district attorneys are nearly unanimous in their bipartisan conclusion that the Racial Justice Act created a judicial loophole to avoid the death penalty and not a path to justice.”

But Democrats argue there’s plenty of evidence that those juries were racially biased.

They cite a Michigan State University study of North Carolina that found evidence of prosecutors striking black people from capital cases at more than twice the rate of others over two decades.

They also point to the 2012 decisions of a Cumberland County judge to reduce the sentences of four convicted murderers on racial grounds.

One of the men who appealed was a black man convicted of killing two white law enforcement officers. Attorneys for the defendants argued during a nine-day hearing in October that prosecutors had systematically tried to prevent blacks from serving on the juries for the trials. The defense team presented statistics and handwritten notes from prosecutors’ case files to bolster its contentions.

Prosecutors argued racial bias did not play a role in the cases.

Three of those rulings came after a rollback of the act that restricted the use of statistics to prove prejudice and required other forms of evidence.

56 bills signed

The repeal of the Racial Justice Act was one of 56 bills McCrory signed into law Wednesday. McCrory announced the signings in a news release just before 6 p.m., with the Racial Justice Act bill noted only by its number: S.B. 306.

Reacting to the signing, the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina accused McCrory and the state of ignoring reality.

“The Racial Justice Act brought to light undeniable proof that North Carolina’s death penalty system is plagued by racial bias,” Policy Director Sarah Preston said. “By repealing this law barely four years into its existence, North Carolina’s leadership has willfully turned its back on widespread evidence of systemic racial bias that needs to be addressed – not ignored. Even those who support the death penalty should agree that capital sentences must be handed down impartially and without bias. Sadly, North Carolina’s lawmakers have just undone the best tool our state had to achieve that goal.”

McCrory’s signature was a quiet end for legislation that produced repeated, bruising political battles.

The law, one of only two like it in the country, was adopted after months of contention along party lines and much opposition from prosecutors, law enforcement organizations and victims’ rights advocates.

In the next legislative elections, Republicans attacked some Democrats for their support of the law.

In a controversial mailer distributed to voters in Democratic districts, the N.C. Republican Party suggested that the Racial Justice Act would allow death row inmates to go free and move next door to residents. The law would have allowed the death penalty to be changed to life in prison with no possibility of parole in instances where racial discrimination was found.

In 2011, the newly GOP-dominated General Assembly passed a bill gutting the act but could not override Gov. Bev Perdue’s veto. A year later a bill severely restricting how the Racial Justice Act could be used became law after surviving a veto.

With a GOP majority in the House and a Republican governor now in office, the last remnants of the law have now been swept away.

News & Observer staff writer David Bracken and Charlotte Observer staff writer Rick Rothacker contributed

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