Senate OKs veto override of death row law repeal
Posted January 3, 2012
Updated January 4, 2012
RALEIGH, N.C. — The Senate voted along party lines Wednesday to override Gov. Beverly Perdue's veto of legislation that essentially repeals a law that gives death row inmates a path to challenge their sentences.
A potential standoff on the House override vote ended when Perdue appointed Republican Trudy Walend to the seat recently vacated by David Guice, a Republican who resigned to become chief of the state probation office.
House Speaker Thom Tillis had said the chamber would remain in session until Perdue made the appointment, as having an open seat would make it more difficult for House Republicans to obtain the 72 votes needed to override the veto.
Even with its full complement in the House, Republicans need to persuade at least four Democrats to join them in an override vote since a two-thirds majority is needed.
House Majority Leader Paul Stam said Republican leaders have been in touch with about eight House Democrats who they hope will change their votes from June, when the House approved the repeal along party lines.
The 2-year-old Racial Justice Act allows death row inmates to use statistical evidence to argue that racial discrimination was a significant factor in determining their sentences. A judge who agreed could reduce a death sentence to life in prison without parole.
Critics of the law maintain that it was too broadly written, noting that all but three of the 158 people on death row in North Carolina filed motions under the law, including a number of white inmates whose victims were white.
Before falling in a 31-19 vote, Democratic lawmakers argued Wednesday that the law is needed to ensure that the death penalty is handed down fairly.
Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, D-Orange, cited studies that show black defendants are more likely to be sentenced to death if their victims are white. Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, said prosecutors can also use statistics under the law to rebut inmate arguments, and judges can decide which side to believe.
But Sen. Don East, R-Surry, related an emotional story about the death of his father, a police officer killed in the line of duty. East said the killer's death sentence was vacated in the 1970s when the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the way most states handed down such sentences.
"The Racial Justice Act is not some veiled attempt to do away with the death penalty. It was an outright, blatant attempt to do away with the death penalty," East said.
Sen. Thom Goolsby, R-New Hanover, called the Racial Justice Act "a whole new extreme of Monday morning quarterbacking." A defense attorney, Goolsby said processes are in place to ensure fairness in jury selection and criminal appeals.
"This is a farce," he said of the law.
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said the law isn't the right tool to correct any suspected bias. The changes to the law included in the vetoed legislation would fix the problem, he said.
"Wrong tool for what may be a problem," said Berger, R-Rockingham.