It’s been nearly seven years since the last execution in North Carolina, but that could soon change after the state Senate passed a bill to resume executions in the Tar Heel State.
The halt in executions stemmed largely from challenges to the state’s lethal injection protocol and questions about whether medical professionals can participate in a state-sponsored killing. Additionally, the 2009 Racial Justice Act allowed death row inmates to appeal their conviction if racial bias may have played a role in his or her sentence. A judge would then decide whether to let the capital sentence stand or commute it to life without the possibility of parole.
However, that law’s days may be numbered after the state Senate voted 33–14 on Wednesday to repeal the Racial Justice Act, in addition to enacting other changes to smooth the path to future executions. The bill now moves to the state House, where Republicans enjoy a 77–43 advantage.
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When it passed, the [Racial Justice Act] 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.
Whether North Carolina lawmakers recognize it or not, racial bias plays a major role in the criminal justice sentencing system, particularly in the doling out of death sentences. For example, in capital cases, those with at least one white victim were over three times more likely to result in a death sentence than those without a white victim. In addition, as court documents show, potential jurors who were minorities were struck by prosecutors at nearly twice the rate of potential jurors who were white, regardless of qualification. All- or mostly-white juries have been more likely to sentence a black defendant to death. The Racial Justice Act helped address these biases in the system.
North Carolina’s move bucks the national trend towards repealing the death penalty. Six states in as many years have eliminated capital punishment.
As of last year, more than 160 people were on death row in North Carolina.