By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
April 4, 2013
RALEIGH — A bill that would spell the end of the already scaled back Racial Justice Act and a new beginning for the death penalty in North Carolina moved one step closer to becoming law Wednesday with a 33-14 Senate vote along party lines.
“We have a moral obligation to ensure that death row criminals convicted of the most heinous crimes imaginable finally face justice in North Carolina,” the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Thom Goolsby (R-New Hanover), told the Senate, later calling the RJA, an “end-run around capital punishment.”
But supporters of the one-of-a-kind law passed in 2009 to allow death row inmates a broad avenue by which to appeal their sentences by alleging race played a role in jury selection or other aspects of sentencing said repealing the act would be a travesty and would deny many African Americans the right to a trial by a jury of their peers, especially in capital cases.
“If you are African American and part of a potential jury pool, prosecutors in this state have decided they don’t want you on a jury. They strike you because of your race, and that’s wrong, it’s unconstitutional, and it’s repugnant,” said Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr. (D-Durham), adding that the RJA had sent a message to prosecutors that they’d better not discriminate.
He and others arguing against S-306 cited a 200-page ruling issued by Judge Greg Weeks late last year when he commuted the sentences of three death row inmates as evidence of racism in the court system.
But Sen. Goolsby pointed out that the RJA had allowed racism claims in cases where both victims and murderers were African American or in one county where a district attorney is accused of being racist because all three capital cases he prosecuted involved murderers of the same color — white.
“The Racial Justice Act is bad law when you have those kinds of results,” he said, reminding Senators of the families of murder victims, some involving black-on-black crime, who have been denied justice. Nearly all of the state’s 150-plus death row inmates have used the law to appeal their sentences.
“Defendants in capital cases already receive extensive due process, which accounts for an average of 12 years of appeals,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League. “Evidence of racially tainted justice can be brought forward during those appeals without the Racial Justice Act, which we believe has become an obstruction to justice in many instances.”
Sen. Goolsby said Senate Bill 306 would not only finish off the controversial RJA, which had been reigned in with legislation last year, it would also clear the way for nurses, doctors and pharmacists to participate in executions without fear of being punished by state licensing boards. Further, the measure would clarify the process by which an execution is initiated after a convicted killer’s legal appeals have been exhausted and would give the Secretary of Public Safety flexibility to ensure that the “most humane and constitutionally-sound” lethal injection protocols are implemented. Under the bill, the Attorney General would be required to update the Legislature annually on the status of pending post-conviction capital cases.
During Wednesday’s debate, Democrats twice tried to separate the RJA issue from the other provisions, once with an amendment and then with a motion for division, but both attempts were voted down. The bill will now go to the House of Representatives.