RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina lawmakers presented legislation Wednesday to overhaul the Racial Justice Act, bidding to stop convicted killers from using certain provisions of the landmark act in a bid to show racial bias influenced their death sentences.
A state House panel on Wednesday narrowly cleared a bill that would strip away much of the act, which passed the Legislature in 2009 when it was under Democratic control. Kentucky is the only state with a similar law.
Republicans who took over the General Assembly last year have sought to void the law, which allows death row inmates to use statistics and other evidence to persuade a judge that bias influenced their sentences. Successful cases convert their sentence into a life term without parole. More than 150 condemned killers, nearly all of the state’s Death Row, have filed for a review of their cases under the act.
GOP lawmakers have failed to override Gov. Beverly Perdue’s veto and are now trying to sharply limit what opponents complain was a backdoor effort to end the death penalty.
“The General Assembly has agreed that the correct punishment for first-degree murder is death, or at the discretion of the jury, life without parole,” said House Majority Leader Paul Stam, R-Wake.
The existing state law allows judges to consider statistical analysis of cases showing race must have been a factor in prosecution decisions, even if no one testifies bias played a role in a specific case. Such statistical analysis is “completely contrary to concepts of Western justice that we consider each case on its own,” Stam said.
In the first case under the law in which a judge considered the evidence, Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks ruled in April that condemned killer Marcus Robinson’s 1991 trial was so tainted by the racially influenced decisions of prosecutors that he should be removed from death row. Prosecutors plan to appeal the sentencing decision. Robinson is a black man convicted of killing a white teenager. Robinson was nearly executed in 2007, but a judge blocked it.
Weeks said he found highly reliable a study by two Michigan State University law professors that compared death penalty cases across North Carolina over a 20 year period. Their research said prosecutors eliminated black jurors more than twice as often as white jurors and that a defendant is nearly three times more likely to be sentenced to death if at least one of the victims is white.
Prosecutors hate the thought that a statistical study blending results from across the state taints them with having racial motivations, said Peg Dorer, executive director of the of the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys
“The fact that Judge Weeks found that all prosecutors have intentionally used racial bias is repugnant,” she said. “District attorneys have expressed a lot of concern, for instance that the Wake County DA is being compared to statistics from the western part of the state and being held accountable.”
Tye Hunter, executive director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham and one of Robinson’s attorneys, said the changes would prevent inmates from considering the Michigan State study’s findings.
“What you’re doing is deciding, we have a 20-year history of intentional discrimination in jury selection in capital cases, let’s turn our backs away and make it so that nobody else can litigate that. That’s the answer?” Hunter said.
The law’s supporters said its aim is removing racial discrimination from the criminal justice system.
“I was born and raised in North Carolina and I can say with certainty that there was and remains racism in my home state” that shows up in criminal cases, said Rep. Grier Martin, D-Wake.
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