RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina lawmakers continue to tinker with legislation to overhaul the state's Racial Justice Act in a bid to stop convicted killers from using the landmark law to show racial bias influenced their death sentences.
A state House panel on Wednesday narrowly cleared a bill that would strip away much of the act, which passed the legislature in 2009 when it was under Democratic control. Kentucky is the only state with a similar law.
The proposal has since been revised to state that "statistical evidence alone is insufficient to prove race a significant factor." That adds to the burden in an appeal to convert a death sentence to life in prison without parole.
The existing state law allows judges to consider statistical analysis of cases showing race must have been a factor in prosecution decisions, even if no one testifies bias played a role in a specific case.
Prosecutors statewide have complained that the law is too vague and opens the door for death penalty appeals regardless of innocence or guilt. More than 150 condemned killers – nearly all of the state's death row – have filed for a review of their cases under the act.
Supporters argue, however, that the racial make-up of a jury or any evidence of bias must be weighed to determine if the death penalty is fairly administered.
In the first case under the Racial Justice Act, Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks ruled in April that condemned killer Marcus Robinson's 1991 trial was so tainted by the racially influenced decisions of Cumberland County prosecutors that he should be removed from death row. The ruling has been appealed.
The new version of the bill also would limit a judge's ability to declare a case non-capital, and it includes a provision to take the governor and Council of State out of the process of approving death penalty protocols.
A lawsuit by death row inmates over those protocols has been one of the legal challenges that has put executions in North Carolina on hold since 2006.
Gov. Beverly Perdue vetoed an attempt by the Republican-led legislature to repeal the Racial Justice Act outright last year, and lawmakers weren't able to muster the votes to override her opposition.
The revised overhaul bill is expected to pass the House Judiciary Committee next Monday and go before the full House later in the week.