Raleigh, N.C. — State House lawmakers gave final approval today to repeal the remaining parts of North Carolina’s landmark Racial Justice Act.
The final vote was 77-39, along party lines, with the Republican majority voting for the repeal.
The repeal, Senate Bill 306, now goes back to the Senate for a final vote to approve changes the House made.
The 2009 Racial Justice Act gives death row inmates an opportunity to have their sentences commuted to life without parole if they can prove to a judge that racial bias played a role in their sentencing.
Four condemned inmates have succeeded in cases under the law so far. Their sentences were commuted in 2012 by Cumberland County Judge Gregory Weeks, who said they presented overwhelming evidence of bias in the state's courts system, especially in jury selection.
Republican leaders repealed much of the Racial Justice Act last year. Senate Bill 306 would undo the remainder of the legislation.
Critics of the Racial Justice Act say it's a "de facto moratorium on the death penalty." They say the repeal will allow executions in North Carolina to begin again.
But opponents of the repeal say it could add even more legal delays for the estimated 140 death row inmates who have cases pending under the current law.
Rep. Darren Jackson, D-Wake, said the repeal could add 5 to 10 years to the time it will take to resume executions.
"You don’t give someone a right, allow them to assert it, and then take it away," Jackson said.
Because four inmates had their sentences commuted, Jackson said, other death row inmates whose pending cases would be thrown out by the repeal can claim they were not treated equally.
"It certainly will raise a claim that will have to be litigated in court in years to come," he said. "You are gift-wrapping even more avenues for appeals for these murderers."
But repeal supporter Rep. Skip Stam, R-Wake, disagreed with Jackson's legal arguments.
“A capital defendant retains all the rights that the state and federal constitutions provide” against racial bias, Stam said. "Get justice back into the death penalty scenario."
Senate Bill 306 also protects medical professionals who assist at executions from sanctions or punishment by the groups that govern their professions.
The Senate is expected to agree to the House's changes to the legislation. The repeal bill could be on Governor McCrory's desk by the end of the week.