Raleigh, N.C. — The state House on Tuesday gave key approval to legislation that would restrict the ability of death row inmates to introduce statistical evidence to claim race played a role in their sentences.
A final vote on Senate Bill 416 is expected Thursday, but the 72-47 vote in Wednesday's second reading shows enough support in the House to override a potential veto by Gov. Beverly Perdue.
The bill essentially guts the state's landmark Racial Justice Act, which was passed in 2009 to allow convicted killers to be re-sentenced to life imprisonment without parole if they prove that racial bias influenced their death sentences.
Republican lawmakers have targeted the bill for repeal since seizing control of the General Assembly last year, calling it too vague and noting that even white prisoners whose victims were white have used it to appeal their sentences. A bill passed a year ago was vetoed by Perdue, and the House fell short in its override effort.
The latest bill still allows challenges to death sentences but requires that judges have evidence beyond simple statistical analysis before deciding that race was a factor in a sentence. Also, any statistics used would be limited to the county or prosecutorial district where a trial occurred, instead of from across North Carolina.
"This bill amends certain death penalty procedures ... to do what justice is supposed to do – focus on the defendant and the crime instead of society in general," said Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake, who noted that the Racial Justice Act "has very little to do with race and nothing to do with justice."
Rep. Larry Womble, D-Forsyth, one of the chief backers of the Racial Justice Act, made an impassioned plea for the state to do the right thing and ensure justice for criminal defendants in North Carolina.
"We have a magnificent opportunity before us. Don't squelch it. Don't let it slip through your fingers," Womble said. "Stand up. Have some courage. Have some backbone. Have some conviction."
In the first case under the Racial Justice Act, Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks ruled in April that statistics showed race significantly influenced jury selection in Marcus Robinson’s 1994 trial in Cumberland County. Robinson, who is black, was found guilty of killing a white 17-year-old in 1991.
Weeks ordered Robinson removed from death row, but the state has appealed the ruling.
Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, called the new proposal "extremely flawed," noting that anyone convicted in Cumberland County around the same time as Robinson and sentenced to death wouldn't be allowed to use the same statistical evidence he did to get off death row.
Glazier was one of the main architects of the Racial Justice Act. "We’re not writing on a clean slate anymore," he said. "We have a court opinion that says there is overwhelming evidence of historical racial discrimination in the selection of juries in the state of North Carolina."
"This bill simply pays lip service to the notion that we have bias in our criminal justice system - and then simply eviscerates the only way left to prove it," Glazier said.
Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, recounted the cases of a serial killer and another death row inmate who kicked one man to death and ran out of bullets while trying to kill two others. Both men have filed appeals under the law.
"This is about monsters," Dollar said, "evil people doing unspeakable acts," urging lawmakers to listen to the victims of violent crime who have called for the Racial Justice Act appeals to end.
"However well-intentioned the Racial Justice Act – and I'm sure it was well-intentioned – the effect has been obscene," he said.