Proven racial bias might no longer be enough to spare death-row inmates from the death penalty, if the N.C. House of Representatives votes to repeal a controversial state law this afternoon.
The Racial Justice Act — passed in 2009 with bipartisan support — permits convicted killers to use claims of racial discrimination to have their death-row sentences converted to life in prison without parole.
But many state legislators have said they believe the law creates more problems than it solves.
The Senate approved a bill in April that would repeal the act, and the same bill was voted favorably out of a House judiciary committee last week.
Jennifer Marsh, a UNC law professor, said the Racial Justice Act was the first of its kind in the United States to allow the use of county and state statistics as evidence that race was a significant factor in a judgment.
“It was amazingly groundbreaking, in its original form,” Marsh said.
A 2011 Michigan State University School of Law study — which looked at death row cases in North Carolina from 1990 to 2009 — found that defendants whose victims were white were more likely to receive the death penalty.
“This (law) was important in saying, we are going to look at our past and how the justice system works and make sure that it’s free of racial discrimination,” Marsh said.
N.C. Republicans voted last year to repeal the provision allowing statistics to be the sole indicator of racial bias.
Still, Sarah Preston, policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, said the law is effective as it stands.
Preston said the N.C. courts have heard four more death row cases in the past year where racial bias has been proven — and all four inmates had their sentences converted to life in prison.
“It shows that there’s still a way to make a claim under the new version and that the law is still very necessary,” she said.
But Sen. Thom Goolsby, R-New Hanover, who led the recent push against the Racial Justice Act in the Senate, said the law is problematic and many people don’t understand its contents in full.
“It’s simply an attempt to get people off death row by arguing that the frequency of the death penalty in one race is more than another,” Goolsby said. “It doesn’t deal with the word ‘bias’ or ‘discrimination.’”
Since the act was passed, only two of the 152 death-row inmates have not filed charges under either the Racial Justice Act or cruel and unusual claims — regardless of their race or the race of their victims.
Goolsby said the state needs to use different legal solutions to handle appeals of racial discrimination and ensure fairness in death row cases.
He said there are still many ways for the courts to address bias issues on a case-by-case basis.
“As a criminal lawyer, I do expect our laws to make sense — not just be attempts to give a moratorium on the death penalty instead of actually dealing with racial bias,” he said.
No death-row executions have been carried out in North Carolina since 2006.
Support for the law’s repeal among legislators appears strong, and Goolsby said he is confident of the outcome of the House’s vote.
Marsh said she would be surprised if the repeal does not pass.
“It’s quite a shame, because it’s one of the last faceguards to make sure that our justice is being carried out fairly for all our citizens,” she said.
Preston said she expects to see additional litigation if the repeal is approved — she said defendants who had already made claims under the Racial Justice Act would try to argue that their appeals should stand.
Today’s House session will convene at 2 p.m.
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