RALEIGH, N.C. — The Republican-controlled state Senate voted Monday night to repeal a landmark 2009 state law that allows death row inmates to appeal their sentences by using statistical evidence to try and prove the taint of racial bias.
Since the House had earlier passed the legislation, the Senate vote sends the measure to the desk of Gov. Beverly Perdue, who signed the Racial Justice Act into law two years ago. A Perdue spokesman said she'll review the bill before making a decision on it.
Under the current law, a death row inmate who successfully appeals the sentence would not be freed, but would spend life in prison without parole.
Relatives of murder victims, clergy members, lawmakers and even a wrongly convicted man appeared Monday before a legislative committee considering the measure to repeal.
"Race continues to play a factor in our system," said Darryl Hunt, who spent almost 20 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit.
Hunt, who is black, said he was spared a death sentence by one juror's vote, and he noted his jury included 11 white members and one black.
"All we're asking for is justice and fairness in the system, where you won't be sentenced to death based upon the color of your skin," he said.
Prosecutors and victims maintain, however, that the law is ambiguous and is being misused. All but three of the 157 inmates on death row have filed appeals under the law.
"We are fearful that these death row inmates will be potentially released," Johnston County District Attorney Susan Doyle said, noting the General Assembly cannot mandate that sentences are commuted to life without parole.
Some victim relatives said they support the law and don't want it abandoned.
"If there is a problem with race in our justice system, I don't understand why we don't want to figure that out," said Ton Fewel, whose daughter was murdered.
House Majority Leader Paul Stam said using general racial statistics to decide individual cases is just wrong.
"Justice is personal; it's not collective," said Stam, R-Wake. "We don't punish people because they're members of a group. We don't exonerate people because they're members of a group."
Before going home Tuesday, lawmakers decided not to consider changes to the state gasoline tax. Without changing it, the tax will rise on Jan. 1 by 4 cents, to nearly 39 cents a gallon.
Republican House leaders want to stop that increase for six months, saying the increase would hurt businesses and families already struggling in this recession.
A six-month cap would cost the state $95 million, and the Department of Transportation has already budgeted that money to build and repair roads and bridges. Contractors also say a cap would cut thousands of jobs in road construction.