Senate votes to repeal Racial Justice Act

The state Senate voted 33-14 Wednesday to repeal the state's historic Racial Justice Act and restart executions in North Carolina.

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Laura Leslie

The state Senate voted 33-14 Wednesday to repeal the state's historic Racial Justice Act and restart executions in North Carolina.

The 2009 Racial Justice Act allowed death row inmates to appeal their sentences on the grounds of racial bias in the court system. If a judge agreed, the inmate's sentence could be commuted to life without the possibility of parole.

When it passed, the law was the only one of its kind in the nation. Supporters said it would renew public confidence in the capital punishment system. Detractors said it would clog the courts with appeals.  

The original law allowed the use of statistics to prove a pattern of racial bias in jury selection and sentencing. State lawmakers changed that with a major rewrite last year. Senate Bill 306 repeals the remainder of the law.

The measure also allows medical professionals to participate in executions without risk of punishment, requires the state attorney general to notify the Department of Public Safety when a condemned prisoner's appeals are exhausted and requires the attorney general to keep the General Assembly updated on the status of death row appeals.

Sponsor Sen. Thom Goolsby, R-New Hanover, says the bill would end the state's de facto moratorium on executions. Because of lawsuits over its lethal injection protocol and a court fight over whether medical professionals can participate, no one has been executed in North Carolina since 2006.

Goolsby called the Racial Justice Act "an end run around capital punishment." He says repealing it will ensure justice for victims and their families, as well as respect for the decisions of juries that send "cold-blooded deliberative killers" to death row.

Democrats tried and failed twice to remove the section repealing the Racial Justice Act from the rest of the legislation.

Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, said cases commuted under the Racial Justice Act have proven racial bias still pervades the capital punishment system.

“It’s wrong, it’s unconstitutional and it’s repugnant – totally repugnant,” McKissick said. “Since 1999, five people on death row in this state have left death row and were exonerated. We’re not fool-proof.”

The Racial Justice Act "sent a strong message" to prosecutors to avoid striking black jurors on account of race in capital cases, he said.

“We’re all entitled to justice with a jury of our peers hearing the case, and I want to know that one member of that jury looks like me,” he said.  

Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt agreed.

"I said when I passed (the Racial Justice Act) I hoped no one found relief under the bill. That would mean we didn’t have a problem. That’s what we all wanted to find. That’s not what we found," said Nesbitt, D-Buncombe.

"We told the courts, 'Look at these cases. See if it’s there,'" he said, "and we found that there is in virtually every case that’s been heard."

"The world is still as safe as it was before the (Racial Justice Act) hearings," he said. "We need to continue to let the courts clean up this mess."

But Goolsby called the Racial Justice Act "bad law," saying that racial bias by prosecutors is already illegal and those convicted of capital crimes already have "multiple avenues of appeal" available to them.

"I keep thinking about the families of the murder victims that I’ve met," Goolsby said.

The measure now goes to the House.

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