House panel debates changes to Racial Justice Act

Posted May 18, 2011 2:16 p.m. EDT
Updated May 18, 2011 2:29 p.m. EDT

Death Row, Death Penalty, prisoner

— A state House judiciary committee held nearly two hours of passionate debate Wednesday on proposed changes to the Racial Justice Act.

The 2009 law allows convicts sentenced to death to use statistical evidence to prove bias in their sentencing and be resentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Most of North Carolina's 158 death-row inmates have filed a claim under the act, including white inmates convicted of killing white victims. Many of the inmates question the racial makeup of juries that handled their cases.

Republican lawmakers have criticized the law since its passage, and with control of the General Assembly, they are looking to revise it.

House Bill 615 "No Discriminatory Purpose in Death Penalty" bans using statistical evidence in claims of bias and stipulates that inmates who prove bias would receive a resentencing hearing, not an automatic sentence.

The bill would also change the standard of bias inmates have to prove. Instead of proving that "race was a significant factor" in their sentencing, the inmates would have to prove that the state or at least one juror acted with "discriminatory purpose."

Critics of the Racial Justice Act say that it ties up courts and wastes resources and is too vague and broad.

Defenders of the law say that it is crucial to overcoming a legacy of racial discrimination in courts.

The judiciary committee did not vote on the bill, which remains under consideration.