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House tentatively OKs limits to bias claims by condemned prisoners

Posted June 12, 2012

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— 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."

House tentatively OKs limits to bias claims by condemned prisoners House tentatively OKs limits to bias claims by condemned prisoners

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.

32 Comments

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  • jurydoc Jun 13, 6:26 p.m.

    loveapex - do you just create "data" to support your claims?? ACTUAL data indicate that nationally, whites and blacks constitute 43 and 42 percent of inmates on death row, respectively. As for actual executions, 56% of executions since 1976 (when DP was found constitutional with sentencing schemes) were of whites and 34% were black. Interestingly, this is largely attributable to the fact that those defendants who kill white victims are more likely to receive the death penalty and the vast majority of murders are intraracial (race of victim and perp the same). So, given these data from the death penalty info center, it is not surprising that white death row inmates would make challenges to their death sentences. It is NOT just about jury composition, but who faces a possible death sentence to begin with given the broad prosecutorial discretion involved.

  • wayneuber Jun 13, 4:42 p.m.

    @loveapex - You make a good case for streamlining the appeals process. Why can't NC emulate states like VA?

  • loveapex Jun 13, 12:38 p.m.

    In the fact that no one is being killed, no. In other ways it does. It is another way to divide people and the state still has death penalty cases. The cost of a death penalty case is about 50k and a regular murder trial about 15k. Every single inmate currently on death row (150 of them) has submitted paperwork to appeal their sentencing based on this act. Money, money, money.

  • tarheelgrad1998 Jun 13, 12:16 p.m.

    Since we aren't even executing anyone, does it matter???

    Speaking of cart before the horse.

  • loveapex Jun 13, 12:02 p.m.

    No problem. The facts are a good weapon against ignorance.

  • Dan Cooper Jun 13, 11:26 a.m.

    loveapex, thanks for posting the percentages, too bad it's easier for some to make ignorant assumptions based on their tired agenda instead of going with the facts.

  • 4Strikes Jun 13, 11:23 a.m.

    "Dan Cooper - thanks for my laugh of the day. LOL"

    Ditto

  • loveapex Jun 13, 11:04 a.m.

    Dan Cooper - thanks for my laugh of the day. LOL

  • loveapex Jun 13, 11:03 a.m.

    The headline should read, "House tentatively OKs Racism In Our disgusting Judicial System
    ============================================================
    ======

    You are so correct. Across the nation 56% of those executed for their crime of murder are white! 35% are black. The number of whites on death row in the nation is double that of minorities. Spread the word.

  • Dan Cooper Jun 13, 10:51 a.m.

    The headline should read, "Ignorant hate filled liberals will have to resort to posting on message boards to preach their hate and attention grab instead of releasing their criminal heroes from death row"

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