RALEIGH – Republican legislators keep trying to narrow the focus of the Racial Justice Act in a way to satisfy enough colleagues so changes to the 2009 law on the death penalty can withstand a potential veto by Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue.
A House judiciary subcommittee voted along party lines Monday to rework the law, which allows death row prisoners to use statistics to persuade a judge that racial bias influenced their sentences. Condemned inmates who win in court have their sentences reduced to life in prison without parole. Murder defendants also can use the law to get a judge to prevent a district attorney from seeking the death penalty at trial.
While under Democratic control, the Legislature approved and Perdue signed the Racial Justice Act. Nearly all the 150-plus inmates on North Carolina’s death row filed for reviews under the law. Republicans now in charge approved in 2011 a law that essentially voided the Racial Justice Act, but Perdue vetoed that bill last December. Republicans were unable to secure enough votes to override it, leading them to seek what they view as a compromise.
The judiciary subcommittee approved a bill last week narrowing the scope of the act. Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake, the bill’s chief proponent in the House, said the bill was reworked Monday in part as a concession to Racial Justice Act supporters. Stam said the bill could receive floor debate and a vote Tuesday. The Senate would still have to approve the bill.
House Democrats and appellate defense attorneys said the measure still guts the purpose of the 2009 law. They pointed specifically to a provision that would make clear statistics alone aren’t enough to establish race was a significant factor in seeking or imposing the death penalty or in removing people from the jury pool.
“This is a bill that pays absolutely lip service to the existence of racial bias in the criminal justice system and then eviscerates the only method that’s available to prove it,” said Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, who voted against the bill, which passed 9-6.
Stam widened the period of time from which statistics could be reviewed by lawyers to claim racial bias compared to last week’s version. The 2009 law gives defendants the ability to use statistics of capital cases going back decades anywhere in the state. The bill limits the admission of statistics from the county and prosecutorial district in which the defendants had or would be tried.
A judge ruled in the first Racial Justice Act in April, finding that the case of convicted killer Marcus Robinson — a black man convicted in 1991 of killing a white teenager — was so tainted by the racially influenced decisions of prosecutors that he should be removed from death row. Prosecutors plan to appeal the decision. The judge found reliable a study that in part found in North Carolina a defendant is nearly three times more likely to be sentenced to death if at least one of the victims is white.
The bill also makes clear that defendants who see their sentence reduced from death to life in prison can’t seek parole. Prosecutors said the 2009 law could allow some death-row inmates to be paroled after 20 years in prison if their crimes were committed before October 1994, but Racial Justice Act supporters say that’s untrue.
“We just put it in writing,” Stam said.