Racial Justice Act Repeal goes to House floor

Posted May 29, 2013 11:53 a.m. EDT
Updated May 29, 2013 5:48 p.m. EDT

— A proposal to repeal the remainder of the 2009 Racial Justice Act could be on the House floor for a vote Monday after passing a House judiciary committee on a straight party-line vote Wednesday. 

Senate Bill 306 would strike the Racial Justice Act from state law, voiding all pending cases for relief under the statute. 

The 2009 law allows death row inmates to seek to have their sentences commuted to life without parole if they can prove to a judge that racism played a role in their sentencing.  

By 2010, said Rep. Skip Stam, R-Wake, 152 of the state's 156 death row inmates had filed for relief under RJA, even white convicts who killed white victims.

"This is the effect of one of the most unjust laws I've ever seen passed by the General Assembly," he said.

District attorneys can file a motion to dismiss those claims, and a judge can throw the case out if there's no evidence of racism. But sponsor Sen. Thom Goolsby, R-New Hanover, said the "poorly written" 2009 law is taking up district attorneys' valuable time.   

"What RJA does is, it turns our hard-working district attorneys into racists and it turns cold-blooded murderers into victims," Goolsby said. "Allowing the sham of RJA to go forward is going to continue to back up our courts and cost us millions of dollars."

But Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, one of the 2009 law's original supporters, said successful cases under RJA have proven beyond a doubt that the state's justice system is "infected by institutionalized racism."

Repealing the law in the face of evidence that it's needed, he said, "comes perilously close to state-condoned racial discrimination in our justice process." 

"RJA created an opportunity to get behind what many of us knew was out there, and that is that we're a product of our time" in practices like jury selection, Glazier said. "If we're afraid to confront where we have been, it's not a good place where we're going." 

"The evidence did not prove the need for the law," Stam said. "The evidence proved there was past discrimination in cases in North Carolina. We knew that."

Stam said the RJA's additional avenues of relief could add five to 10 years to a death row inmate's already lengthy appeals process.

"I would pray that we are not being prejudiced in what we do," said Rep. Pat Hurley, R-Randolph, "but I do feel we need to have peace for some of the victims. "

Glazier warned that repealing the RJA while cases under it are pending would also stretch out the appeals process and tie up the courts. 

"Can people attempt to appeal under that? Yes, they can," Goolsby replied. "It's a battle that we will have to wage one way or the other."

The measure also spells out that doctors can administer lethal injections without censure by their professional organizations. 

The bill passed 9-4, with all Democrats present voting against the repeal.