NC House committee OKs update to Racial Justice Act

Posted June 11, 2012 6:20 a.m. EDT
Updated June 11, 2012 6:03 p.m. EDT

Death Row, Death Penalty, prisoner

— Members of the North Carolina House Judiciary Committee agreed Monday evening to a tweak to the Racial Justice Act, a 2009 law that allows convicted killers to be re-sentenced to life imprisonment without parole if they can prove that racial bias influenced their death sentences.

The bill would change a key provision of the law to require that judges have evidence beyond simple statistical analysis before deciding that race was a factor in a sentence. The law on the books allows judges to use statistical data showing that race must have been a factor in prosecutors' decisions, even if no one testifies that bias played a role in a specific case.

The new version would also limit a judge's ability to commute a death sentence to life. A provision would take the governor and Council of State out of the process of approving death penalty protocols, a response to a lawsuit by death row inmates that has been one of the legal challenges putting executions in North Carolina on hold since 2006.

Prosecutors statewide have complained that the Racial Justice Act 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 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 race significantly influenced jury selection in Marcus Robinson’s 1994 trial in the 1991 shooting death of a white 17-year-old, Erik Tornblom, and ordered Robinson removed from death row. The ruling has been appealed.

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.