Veto override scuttles N.C. Racial Justice Act

New law tempers race’s role in death penalty
Published Tuesday, July 3, 2012 1:23 pm

by Gary Robertson, Associated Press 

RALEIGH — The North Carolina Legislature on Monday cancelled Gov. Beverly Perdue’s veto of legislation that rolled back a state law giving death row prisoners a way to seek a reduced sentence because of racial bias.

The House and Senate voted separately to override Perdue’s veto of changes to the 2009 Racial Justice Act. The bill now becomes law because at least 60 percent of the legislators in each chamber voted to override.

The measure was approved despite arguments it would turn a blind eye to racism in the criminal justice system. Most local district attorneys and other death penalty supporters argue the scaled-back law will rely less on statistics they say were misleading and untie a log jam over the carrying out of executions in North Carolina. North Carolina’s last execution was in 2006.

“With today’s override of the governor’s veto, the end of the moratorium is in sight,” House Majority Leader Paul Stam, R-Wake, the bill’s chief proponent in the chamber, said in a statement. “The basic principle of justice is restored: individual responsibility.”

Lawmakers who supported the Racial Justice Act said the changes gutted the law and will make it impossible for defendants to prove discrimination in the sentencing of a convicted murderer or in the composition of jurors hearing a case. A judge who finds race was a significant factor could reduce a death sentence to life in prison without parole.

“We should not allow race to come into our courtrooms,” said Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, during Senate debate. “Race still impacts the minds and the hearts and the consciences of many people who serve on our juries.”

Defense attorney Sen. Thom Goolsby, R-New Hanover, said the 2009 law was a back-door way by death penalty opponents to end capital punishment.
“I don’t trust are statisticians or people who come in after the fact to find some way to get cold-blooded killers off of death row,” he said before the 31-11 override vote. The House override vote was 72-48 — exactly a 60 percent majority.

Perdue, who signed the 2009 law and will leave office in January, said she would fight to make sure the death penalty stays on the books in North Carolina as long as she is governor.

“But it has to be carried out fairly — free of prejudice,” she said in a statement. “It is simply unacceptable for racial prejudice to play a role in the imposition of the death penalty in North Carolina.”

Kentucky was the only state with a similar law as North Carolina had. “The eyes of this nation are on North Carolina,” Rep. Larry Womble, D-Forsyth, said in urging lawmakers not to override.

The new law limits defendants’ use of statistics they think prove racial bias from a time span 10 years before a slaying and two years after a sentence. There had been no time limit. The new law also says statistics alone cannot prove race was a significant factor in a death row inmate’s conviction or sentence. Statistics also are now limited to conduct of prosecutors near where the murder occurred, rather than anywhere in the entire state as the previous law allowed.

The one death penalty case ruled on by a judge under the Racial Justice Act will be allowed to continue under the law. A Cumberland County judge found 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 his decision.

Weeks made the decision after reviewing a study of North Carolina death penalty cases that found 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.

“By gutting the Racial Justice Act, our Legislature has turned its back on the overwhelming evidence of racial bias in our state’s death penalty system,” said Sarah Preston with the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Perdue vetoed last December another Republican effort to undermine the Racial Justice Act, but GOP legislative leaders didn’t have the votes to override it. On Monday, they got help from a handful of House Democrats.

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