State News

Prosecutors, legislators challenge NC's racial bias law

Posted February 7, 2011 4:00 a.m. EST
Updated February 7, 2011 7:05 p.m. EST

— As prosecutors launched a legal challenge Monday to a racial bias law that death row inmates have used to try to overturn their sentences, Republican lawmakers are looking at revising or repealing the statute.

Superior Court Judge William Z. Wood in Forsyth County is expected to rule later this week on the constitutionality of the Racial Justice Act. Prosecutors contend in court documents that the law is too vague and fails to provide key guidelines and procedures.

State legislators passed the law in 2009, allowing convicts to use statistical evidence to argue bias in their sentencing.

“It cannot be unconstitutional to spend time assuring that our state’s death penalty is carried out fairly and legally,” Ken Rose, an attorney for inmates Errol Moses and Carl Moseley, argued in court. “What’s unconstitutional is to execute people under a discriminatory system. If the (Racial Justice Act) is unconstitutional, then so is our death penalty statute.”

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 now that they control the General Assembly, they are looking at revising or repealing it.

"We're spending millions of dollars with violent offenders filing frivolous claims," House Speaker Thom Tillis said, adding that he expects a bill to overhaul the Racial Justice Act to be filed in four to six weeks.

"To me, it's a waste of resources. It's unfair. It was called the Racial Justice Act, but in fact, it was unjust," Tillis said. "A white man murdering two or three white people and claiming the only reason why a capital punishment case (was) brought against him is because of his race is an absurd notion."

Any appeals that are in process under the law would likely be rescinded as part of any overhaul adopted by the General Assembly, Tillis said.

Supporters of the current law want to give it time to play out.

"I think it's premature for the General Assembly to consider a repeal or any kind of amendment or alteration to this," attorney Mark Kleinschmidt said.

All 6 of Kleinschmidt's clients on death row filed claims under the law. He said the bias doesn't necessarily have to do with the defendant's race.

"We're seeking the harshest punishments in cases where the victims are white, and we're not seeking those punishments when the victims are not," he said.

Gov. Beverly Perdue said the Racial Justice Act is complicated, and she is waiting for more information before deciding whether it needs to be changed.

"I understand there are a lot of people who are concerned about it, and I'm going to listen to the debate and see the data," Perdue said.