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GOP, crime victims want race bias test in capital cases narrowed

Republican legislators called Thursday for restricting a new law that allows death penalty defendants to claim that racial bias tips the scales of justice against them.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Republican legislators called Thursday for restricting a new law that allows death penalty defendants to claim that racial bias tips the scales of justice against them.

The state's Racial Justice Act was adopted last year after supporters said allowing courts to consider statistical evidence of racial bias was needed to prevent black defendants from being punished more harshly what whites.

Republicans say, however, that the law is being used too widely and should be amended so that it could be used only after a conviction and during the sentencing phase of a capital trial.

During a Thursday morning news conference, the widow of slain Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Officer Jeff Shelton urged state legislators to revisit the issue this year. Jennifer Shelton said that the need for a revision was shown two weeks ago when a Superior Court judge postponed the death-penalty trial of her husband's accused killer until October.

The judge said that, because the law is so new, he felt he had to give the suspect's lawyers time to gather information on what role race may play in North Carolina prosecutors seeking or juries imposing the death penalty, The Charlotte Observer reported.

"I believe people should pay for their crimes. I believe victims deserve justice," Shelton said, noting she's waited more than three years for the man accused of killing her husband to stand trial.

Demeatrius Montgomery, 28, is charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the March 2007 slayings of Shelton and Officer Sean Clark, who were both shot in the head after responding to a domestic disturbance in Charlotte.

Mecklenburg Assistant District Attorney Marsha Goodenow said race is not a factor in the decisions prosecutors make to seek a death sentence.

"I disagree with the basis of the Racial Justice Act. I believe that a person is tried for their crime and not for the color of their skin," said Shelton, who is white. "I do not support giving criminals another tool to use to get away with the crimes they have committed."

House Minority Whip Thom Tillis said Republicans will attempt to introduce a measure during the legislative session that started Wednesday to narrow the law to considering race only after a guilty verdict.

"They took this bill to an extreme," Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, said of proponents. "A white man who killed two white people is using the Racial Justice Act on the basis of having his capital case reduced."

Supporters of the bill said it was well written and its intent is very clear. They said trial judges are in the best position to determine racial bias on a case-by-case basis.

"(It's) to make sure we have fairness and equity in the justice system," said Rep. Earline Parmon, D-Forsyth.

State NAACP president William Barber said amending the law would be a step backward for North Carolina.

"The Racial Justice Act was never about delaying justice nor protecting those guilty of violent crimes," he said in a statement. "The purpose was to stymie the racial application and immoral use of the death penalty based on race and class, which has a deep history in this state."

The General Assembly's decision to join Kentucky in allowing statistical evidence to be considered in death penalty cases came last year after months of contentious debate and House and Senate votes along party lines.

Any effort to introduce new legislation faces multiple procedural hurdles lawmakers impose on themselves to focus work this year on passing adjustments to the state budget.

"We're not going to go around the rules to get into the Racial Justice Act again. This session is to focus on the budget, not to go in with bills that will be controversial," House Majority Leader Hugh Holliman said. "We'll be glad to listen, but unless there's more than one case out there, it can wait until (the next session in) January."

The law was opposed by district attorneys, sheriffs and victims' advocates who said it would make death penalty prosecutions too difficult. North Carolina has not had an execution since August 2006 because of unrelated legal questions surrounding executions.

Advocates pointed to research such as a 1990 report by the U.S. General Accounting Office that said dozens of studies have found "a pattern of evidence indicating racial disparities in the charging, sentencing, and imposition of the death penalty."

In one case cited by supporters, then-Gov. Mike Easley commuted the death sentence of Robert Bacon Jr. to life in prison in 2001.

An all-white jury had sentenced Bacon, who is black, to death for stabbing his lover's husband to death. The woman, who is white and who lured her husband to the spot where he was killed, avoided a death sentence and has since been paroled.

Barber said the law will remain a target of Republican opposition.

"There are some people who will never want to acknowledge that we have racial disparities in America," he said.

Shelton said crime victims want fairness in the justice system as well.

"I don't want another family to endure what we've had to endure," she said.


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