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North Carolina lawmakers move to scale back Racial Justice Act

Andrew Craft / AP

Marcus Robinson was removed from death row after a judge found that race played a factor in his jury selection and sentencing.

North Carolina legislators are moving to dramatically scale back a 2009  racial-bias law that is being used by dozens of condemned black inmates to challenge their death sentences.

The state House, in a 73-47 vote, gave final approval on Wednesday to a bill that social-justice advocates say would essentially gut the Racial Justice Act. Five Democrats broke ranks to vote with Republicans for the measure, giving it a veto-proof margin, the Raleigh News & Observer reported.

The bill now goes back to the Senate, where it is also expected to pass by a veto-proof margin.

The House vote comes two months after a Cumberland County Superior Court judge ruled that racial bias played a role in sending a black man to death row for killing a white teenager in 1991. In the first case heard under the Racial Justice Act, Judge Greg Weeks resentenced Marcus Robinson to life imprisonment without parole.

The 2009 law allows death-row inmates to present statistical evidence to allege racial bias in the justice system in which they were tried, convicted and sentenced to die. If bias is shown, their sentence is converted to life in prison; the law can’t be used to set anyone free.

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.”

Supporters of the effort to amend the Racial Justice Act denied any nefarious intentions.

“This action is necessary to end the moratorium on the death penalty,” House GOP Leader Paul “Skip” Stam said in a statement. “The death penalty acts as a deterrent only if it is used. The death penalty will obviously not deter if the state only pretends to have a death penalty and never carries out the sentence.”

Speaking on the House floor on Tuesday, Republican Rep. Nelson Dollar said the Racial Justice Act, while well-intended, has given convicted killers of any race another chance to escape the death penalty.

“This is about monsters,” Dollar said, according to the News-Observer. “Monsters. Evil people doing unspeakable, inhuman acts. That’s what this is about.”

North Carolina has 156 death-row inmates, more than half of whom are black. All but a few have filed to challenge their sentences under the Racial Justice Act. Robinson's case was the first to get a hearing before a judge.

Last year, Gov. Beverly Perdue, a Democrat, vetoed a bill that would have dismantled the Racial Justice Act. The Senate overrode the veto, but the House didn’t have enough votes to do so.

This year’s reworked bill was crafted in private and got the support of five conservative Democrats.

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