Another repeal of the Racial Justice Act?

House GOP leaders are trying again to make changes to the Racial Justice Act. Supporters of the RJA say it's a second attempt to repeal the historic legislation.

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Laura Leslie

It took just 67 minutes for the House Judiciary B committee to unveil and then pass a major rewrite of the Racial Justice Act this morning. 

S416, which used to be a bill about school buses, was gutted and amended to make changes to the 2009 law, which allowed statistical evidence of bias in the state's judicial system to be used by death row inmates seeking to have their sentences commuted to life without parole. It's the first law of its kind in the country. 

The new proposal would limit statistical evidence to a shorter temporal window - from two years before the commission of the crime to two years after sentencing. It would also narrow the geographical area from which statistics can be gathered. Only stats from the county or prosecutorial district where the sentence was imposed would be admissible, instead of the statewide reach currently allowed. 

It would also amend the current law to say that only discrimination against the race of the defendant would be considered. Evidence of sentencing bias related to the victim's race and bias related to prosecutorial juror strikes would no longer be admissible. 

The proposal also says statistical evidence alone is not enough to prove bias. 

House Majority Leader Paul Stam says the new bill is an attempt to fix "what's broken" in the Racial Justice Act. 

"We have 155 people who claim - practically everyone on death row claims the only reason they're there is because of their race. That's broken," he said. "There's not a shred of evidence that any of these people are innocent."

Democrats protested both the measure itself and the fast-tracked process used to handle it. There was no time allowed for committee debate. Lines of questioning were cut off by GOP chairs, who said from the beginning they intended to vote on the measure at 11:15, allowing about one hour for discussion. 

Four non-committee members spoke. All were opposed to the bill. 

"I want to go on record in saying North Carolina continues to go backward when we will knowingly allow racial discrimination in our justice system,: said Rep. Earline Parmon, D-Forsyth.

Tye Hunter with the Center for Death Penalty Litigation said the measure flies in the face of Judge Weeks' ruling in the one RJA case that's been heard. "We found out we have a 20 year history of intentional discrimination in capital cases. Oh. Let's turn our back and make sure nobody else can litigate that." 

Republican members had little to say about the proposal. Democrats called it an end-run around GOP leaders' inability to override the governor's veto of Senate Bill 9, an earlier attempt to rewrite the RJA. 

The measure passed the committee on party lines, 8 to 6. It's scheduled for a House floor vote this afternoon.  

The latest bill is not yet available online to the public. 

Update: The full House adjourned at 5 p.m. today without taking up the Racial Justice Act measure.

"We decided not to run it for time management purposes," House Speaker Thom Tillis said.

Stam also referred to the fact that the House had run through a number of bills for the last few years.

However, the bill is not a consensus measure, even within the Republican caucus. More than one lawmaker noted that Rep. Jim Crawford, a Democrat who sometimes works with the GOP, was not in the chamber Wednesday afternoon. 

Stam and Tillis said they expected the bill to be heard early next week. 

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