North Carolina Repeals Law Allowing Racial Bias Claim in Death Penalty Challenges

Published: June 5, 2013 
A law that allowed death-row inmates to challenge their sentences based on racial bias claims was repealed by the North Carolina legislature on Wednesday, paving the way for executions to resume in a state that has 152 people on death row.

The law, the only one of its kind in the country, allowed inmates to use state and county statistics and other material to claim that race played a role in their sentencing. Since the law took effect in 2009, nearly everyone facing execution — not all of them black — has used it in hopes of reducing sentences to life in prison.

In the weeks before the State House of Representatives took up the Racial Justice Act, most lawmakers acknowledged it was headed for repeal. Still, the legislative debate stretched over two days and was noteworthy for both its emotion and its ideology.

Those who voted to rescind it recited the names of people whose killers were on death row and said the law had clogged the courts and denied justice to victims.

It was also called a deeply flawed piece of legislation.

“It tries to put a carte blanche solution on the problem,” said Representative Tim Moore, a Republican. “A white supremacist who murdered an African-American could argue he was a victim of racism if blacks were on the jury.”

Defenders of the act spoke of innocent black men on death row who had been exonerated and shared deeply personal experiences with racism. They spoke against the death penalty and pointed to the state’s history of tension between blacks and whites.

“It’s incredibly sad,” said Representative Rick Glazier, a Democrat who has long been a supporter of the act. “If you can’t face up to your history and make sure it’s not repeated, it lends itself to being repeated.”

After one more perfunctory pass through the State Senate, which already passed a version of the measure, the bill repealing the act will head to Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican elected last year who has said he will sign it.

A section of the law rescinding the act will now prevent doctors, nurses and other health care professionals from being punished by regulatory boards if they assist in executions. The state medical board in 2007 said it would penalize medical professionals who participated, a policy the State Supreme Court later said was beyond the board’s authority.

The floor debate over the Racial Justice Act began a day after 151 people were arrested in Raleigh as opposition grows to a newly conservative government in a state that has long been considered centrist.

Preserving the act, which was passed when there was a Democrat in the governor’s office and the legislature was not as heavily controlled by Republicans, was among dozens of issues brought up by protesters who have been gathering every Monday since April.

Monday’s protest, organized by the N.A.A.C.P., drew more than a thousand people. Since the protests began, about 300 people have been arrested on trespassing charges and other charges related to acts of civil disobedience.

Conservatives have been chipping away at the Racial Justice Act since its inception four years ago. In 2012, the legislature severely limited how statistics could be used and put a stronger burden of proof on the inmate making the appeal.

Backers had hoped that the law would have stood long enough to be tested in the state’s highest court.

Judges in two counties have used the act. One, a Cumberland County judge who reduced sentences in four cases, cited a Michigan State University legal study of cases between 1990 and 2010 that found that state prosecutors had removed black people from murder-trial juries at more than twice the rate of others.

Although the State Supreme Court had agreed to review cases from earlier decisions, their fate remains unclear.

“I think there’s going to be intense years of litigation over this,” Mr. Glazier said.

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