The General Assembly has approved a milestone bill that will now allow death-row inmates to oppose the death penalty by arguing that there is particular racial bias in the way that capital punishment has been applied.
Under the bill, a prisoner will be able to bring to life statistical evidence showing racial judgment in how the death penalty has been used. If a judge is convinced, the judge can overturn that inmate’s death sentence and swap it with a sentence of life in prison.
In future murder trials in North Carolina, judges will be able to prevent prosecutors from pursuing the death penalty if they find a historical precedent of racial bias in the use of the death penalty.
On August 6, the N.C. Senate voted 25-18 to adopt a version of the bill that had been approved by the N.C. House last month. It was said that Republicans opposed the bill, and most Democrats supported it.
On August 10, Governor Bev Perdue signed the bill into law, making North Carolina the second state, after Kentucky, to endorse a law allowing challenges to the death penalty on the basis of statistical discrimination from previous cases.
The bill’s supporters see it as a long-overdue resolution to a history of discrimination that they say corrupts the criminal-justice system and the system of capital punishment. They named the N.C. Racial Justice Act, and this has been the subject of intense debate and legislative conflicts for months many supporters say that no one would go free because of the bill, claiming that any success of the bill only exchanges a sentence of life in prison as opposed to a death sentence.
Others in opposition say that the bill replaces statistical data and historical situations for the particular facts of a case. They say it will set up an enormous barrier for capital punishment and reawaken the pains of the families of murder victims sentenced to death.
“The need for this bill is self-evident,” said Durham Senator Floyd McKissick, the chief sponsor of the bill in the Senate. “It is critically needed to correct any type of conduct that might be impermissible when it comes to the imposition of the death penalty.”
The bill’s passage is quite a triumph for two Winston-Salem Democrats, Representatives Larry Womble and Earline Parmon, who have been urging the bill for over two years. Some Senate Democrats were skeptical of the bill, and legislators had postponed voting on it several times in recent weeks.
The N.C. Racial Justice Act bill was the final bill for the Senate to take up. Just before the vote, Democrats called for a recess and met privately for nearly an hour. When they finally arrived to it, the bill passed it with little debate.
Senator Phil Berger of Rockingham, the Senate minority leader, said that broad statistics are not relevant to decisions about whether to impose the death penalty in specific cases. Opponents say that statistical racial disparities can be explained by factors other than racial bias.
“What this does is it places the determination of a significant part of first-degree murder cases into the hands of statisticians, regardless of what the facts are,” Berger said.
Tom Keith, the district attorney in Forsyth County, has warned that he and other prosecutors will have to stop pursuing the death penalty because they do not have the resources to constantly defend statistics-based claims of racial bias.
Supporters of the bill said that no one would go free because of the bill, claiming that any success of the bill only exchanges a sentence of life in prison as opposed to a death sentence.
Capital punishment has been in vast decline in North Carolina since 2006 because of several legal disputes. Recent court rulings have tried to resolve those disputes and have begun to move the state closer to a continuation of executions.
North Carolina has not had an execution in nearly three years, and currently has 163 people on death row.