The Senate Judiciary I Committee passed a bill Tuesday morning that its sponsor says would lift a de facto death penalty moratorium in North Carolina, in part by sweeping away the last remnants of the Racial Justice Act.
Committee Chairman Buck Newton called a for a show of hands, which appeared to show the measure passing along party lines, although he did not announce a final count of the vote. Senate Bill 306 now heads to the Senate floor for debate, most likely on Thursday. It would then go to the House.
"This bill is not about whether our state should have a death penalty. We have it," said Sen. Thom Goolsby, R-New Hanover, the bill's sponsor.
The Racial Justice Act was passed in 2009. It allows death row inmates to challenge their sentence, but not their convictions, by using statistical evidence of bias. Lawmakers pared back the act during the last legislative session, but pieces of the statute remain, and there are more than 100 appeals pending on the bill.
Goolsby's bill would wipe out any claims that haven't been heard in court.
Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake, questioned how the state could give death row prisoners a right of appeal and then snatch it back.
"This is going to create a whole new wave of litigation and cost to the state," he said.
A staffer for the committee suggested the state wasn't taking away a right but merely doing away with a procedure that could be used to lessen someone's punishment. But the staffer acknowledged the issue would likely be challenged in court.
Other parts of the bill would require reports on death penalty cases to the General Assembly and require the attorney general to trigger executions when certain conditions were satisfied.
"I have had countless families tell me ... 'Mr. Frank, do we really have a death penalty anymore anyway?'" said Garry Frank, district attorney for Davie and Davidson counties. He was among a handful of speakers who urged passage of the bill, saying the current state of the law is punitive to the families of murder victims.
North Carolina hasn't executed anyone on death row since 2006. There are 152 inmates on death row.
Duane Beck, pastor at Raleigh Mennonite Church, called on lawmakers to leave the law as it is. He described himself as a "conservative Christian" who opposes the death penalty as contrary to the teachings of Jesus.
"If you vote in favor of the death penalty, I would not want to be in your shoes when you meet the risen Lord on Judgment Day and he asks you why you voted against your faith," Beck said.
Goolsby again emphasized that the bill would merely clear the way for death sentences to be carried out.
Sen. Earline Parmon, D-Forsyth, who helped argue to pass the Racial Justice Act in 2009, asked Goolsby to remove provisions dealing with the RJA from the bill.
"The RJA is not about the death penalty. It's about ensuring fairness in the courts," she said.
But Goolsby said the RJA had been used to delay the execution of people he described as "cold-blooded killers" and said that was a bad law.
"This de facto moratorium ... needs to be done away with," he said.