Republican House and Senate leaders say they haven't yet decided whether they'll take up changes to the Racial Justice Act later this month.
Today, Democrats and civil rights supporters called on them to leave the law alone.
District attorneys sent a letter to Senate President Phil Berger recently, citing a list of concerns with the 2009 law. They’re hoping lawmakers will amend it during their session that starts the Sunday after Thanksgiving. The adjournment resolution would appear to allow the amendment bill, SB9, to be heard.
Democrats say the timing of the request is suspect. Prosecutors tried and failed earlier this month to have African-American Judge Greg Weeks removed from a Racial Justice Act case underway in Cumberland County. It’s the first case that’s moving forward under the law.
“They’re afraid of what Judge Weeks is gonna do," said Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham. “He’s hearing a case that’s before the court. To stop him from hearing it, they want to change the law, and they want to change it right away – because unless they do it now, they’re afraid of what the outcome’s gonna be.”
District attorneys want lawmakers to strike the section of the Act that allows inmates to use statewide statistics as proof that the system is racially biased. They say each case should be considered on its own merits.
But supporters of the law say striking that section would effectively gut the Racial Justice Act. They say patterns of discrimination draw a more accurate picture of the system’s ills than prosecutors’ decisions in individual cases.
McKissick said studies show qualified black jurors in North Carolina are more than twice as likely to be stricken from a capital case jury than their white counterparts, and that the death penalty is 2 /12 times more likely to be sought against a black defendant accused of murdering a white victim.
“There are some glaring statistics here that are undeniable,” McKissick said. “Let the judge weigh the merit of the statistics. If they aren’t valid, if they don’t have a basis, then the judge can decide what to do in that case.”
Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe, agreed. “We’ve released seven people off Death Row that were innocent. Five of them were black. Is there a problem here? Of course there is.”
Nesbitt said everyone knows the justice system isn’t perfect. “But you can’t let it sit there and be imperfect. You’ve got to show the people that you’re trying to make it as right as it can be.”
And state NAACP president Rev. William Barber noted that death-row exoneree Darryl Hunt, who was at today’s event, would have been dead if the system had moved more quickly. He called the effort to gut the act another example of “a leadership that’s going backward.”
Barber said district attorneys “should uphold the law, instead of waging a campaign to destroy it.”
“Their duty is to seek the truth, not convictions at any cost,” said Barber.
Watch the uncut press conference at right.