NC Senate Poised to Gut Racial Justice Act

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A bill that would gut North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act was voted out of committee in the state Senate today. SB 416, An Act to Amend Death Penalty Procedures, was approved by the NC House of Representatives last week by a vote of 73-47, a veto-proof majority and awaits floor action in the Senate. The Senate is also expected to approve the bill by a veto-proof margin.

The Racial Justice Act, a historic piece of legislation enacted in 2009, allows North Carolina death row inmates to reduce their sentences to life in prison without parole in certain circumstances. Inmates must show that race played a substantive factor in “decisions to seek or impose the sentence of death in the county, the prosecutorial district, the judicial division, or the State at the time the death sentence was sought or imposed.” The law is unique in that it allows inmates to challenge their sentences based on widespread racial bias instead of having to prove that there was discrimination in their particular case.

SB 416 looks to change all of that. By limiting the use of statistics in proving widespread discrimination, the new bill looks dramatically scale back the Racial Justice Act:

The bill passed this week by the House would allow condemned inmates to present statistics only for the county or judicial district where the crime was committed, rather than statewide, and only covering a period of 10 years before the crime and two years after the imposition of the sentence. Statistics alone would not be sufficient to prove racial bias in imposition of the death sentence; defendants would have to come up with some other evidence.

“This bill guts the NC Racial Justice Act, plain and simple,” Scott Bass, director of Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, said in a statement. “What legislators do not understand is that by passing this law, they not only shirk their responsibility to address documented racial bias in the system, they will also be costing taxpayers millions of dollars in extra expense and slowing resolution of death penalty cases by adding additional layers of appeals.”

“This bill is an attempt to sweep that evidence under the rug by allowing the state to ignore mountains of statistics pointing to the pervasive and disturbing role that race plays in jury selection and sentencing,” said Sarah Preston of the ACLU of North Carolina. “We cannot turn our backs on such evidence, as this bill seeks to do.”

Last year, Gov. Beverly Perdue (D) vetoed a similar bill that would have essentially voided the Racial Justice Act. The Racial Justice Act was invoked for the first time in April. In a 167-page decision, Judge Greg Weeks ruled that race unfairly tainted jury selection over a 20-year period, stating that race was “a materially, practically and statistically significant factor in the decision to exercise preemptory challenges during jury selection.”

Alex Brown