Religious leaders rally to save Racial Justice Act

Posted June 14, 2011 5:29 a.m. EDT
Updated June 14, 2011 3:56 p.m. EDT

Death Row, Death Penalty, prisoner

— Religious leaders from across the state gathered at the General Assembly Tuesday morning to ask lawmakers to keep the Racial Justice Act on the books.

The 2-year-old law helps North Carolina prisoners challenge their death sentences on the basis of racial bias. The House is scheduled to debate repealing the law on Wednesday.

Rev. Alan Felton, pastor of Salem United Methodist Church, said the law ensures that a death sentence is imposed only after defendants have received their due process rights "and after the surety those convictions are not biased by racial bias."

Ministers said the law is a moral issue, not a partisan one.

In a 9-6 vote on June 1, a House judiciary committee recommended that the full House dismantle the Racial Justice Act, which allows defendants to offer statistical evidence to show race played a key factor in their sentence. Studies have shown that defendants convicted of killing a white person are three times as likely to be sentenced to death than those convicted of killing people of other races.

A judge who agrees that the defendant's case is tainted could reduce a death sentence to life in prison.

Republicans have been critical of the law ever since it was passed by the Democratic-led Legislature and signed by Gov. Beverly Perdue in 2009. GOP lawmakers and prosecutors say the law is vague and is costing taxpayers millions of dollars, noting white death row inmates have used the law to try to overturn sentences.

"When a white defendant who murdered two white people can claim he (is going to be) put to death because he's white, that's outrageous," said Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly.

Democrats and defense attorneys say the current law ensures fairness for all in the criminal justice system.