By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
RALEIGH — The Racial Justice Act, signed into law two years ago to help ensure that minorities don’t wind up on death row because of their skin color, missed its target according to lawmakers who voted Monday night to repeal most of the law’s provisions.
Senate Bill 9, “No Discriminatory Purpose in Death Penalty,” which had already passed the House, won approval in the Senate, 27-17, with a vote split along party lines. Gov. Beverly Perdue will now have 30 days to decide whether to veto.
Proponents say the bill was needed to repair the Racial Justice Act, which was too vague, has been misused by death row inmates to garner undeserved and costly appeals and has effectively created a moratorium on capital punishment.
“Of the 157 inmates that have made Racial Justice Act appeals, one third of them are white, so at a minimum the bill itself missed its target,” said Sen. Phil Berger (R-Rockingham), the President Pro Tempore.
But those championing the RJA argued that defendants in capital crimes should be able to use statistics regarding past North Carolina cases to show that racism could have played a role in their current sentences. They argued that studies showing that killers of white victims are more likely to be capitally prosecuted than those who kill minorities and that minority jury candidates are less likely than whites to be chosen for death penalty cases cannot be ignored.
Debate on the Racial Justice Act, one of only two such laws in the nation, was long and at times emotional.
“If there are statistics out there that says if you are African American and you’re the defendant and the victim is white, you are two and a half times more likely that the prosecutor is going to seek the death penalty – maybe that’s something to be concerned about,” Sen. Floyd McKissick (D-Durham) said. “If you are in that jury pool and you’re African American and you’re qualified … and it’s two and half times more likely you’ll be stricken from that jury because you’re African American, my friends that’s wrong.”
He said the RJA was not a “get out of jail free card” but would simply commute the sentences of those with successful appeals to life without parole.
But Sen. Harry Brown (R-Onslow) said the RJA, which he initially supported, was amended in the House in 2009 and now goes too far. He said Senate Bill 9 was needed to correct problems with the law. According to district attorneys, one of those problems is a loophole that could lead to the release of defendants convicted before 1994 who make successful appeals since there was no such sentence as “life without parole” prior to that date.
“We’re not talking about folks that have done something minor. We’re talking about … heinous and atrocious acts,” said Sen. Berger. “And I think we ought to be very concerned about whether or not someone like that could, as a result of the originally passed Racial Justice Act, be eligible for parole.”
Earlier in a committee meeting on the bill, House Majority Leader Paul Stam (R-Durham) had challenged the RJA’s provision that allows current death row inmates to use statistics from other places and times to help prove the possibility of racial bias in their specific cases.
“Justice is personal, it’s not collective,” Stam said. “We don’t punish people because they’re members of a group; we don’t exonerate them because they’re members of a group.”
He described the RJA as having the potential to allow “Mr. A to get off because Mr. B was discriminated against 100 miles away, 30 years ago.”
Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Avery) a statistician by trade, said the state had made a mistake to introduce this type of statistical analysis to the appeals process and that the Racial Justice Act should be pulled back to allow the judicial system to function.
“When we are … saying statistics does it mean we are going to take a group of numbers, hand them to attorneys and say the best sound byte you can come out with from those numbers that sounds good in an argument is what you’re going to use for another round of appeals in these cases?” he asked. “These are serious cases. Trying to supply some level of statistics in samples this small and say that you have made this startling revelation and evidence is an error we have made as a state.”
Sen. Thom Goolsby (R-New Hanover), who introduced the bill in the Senate Monday, said no defendant would be denied his Constitutional rights to appeal based on racial bias in his own case. He said the new law would simply prevent death row inmates from manipulating statistics in order to avoid justice.
“I believe lawmakers did the right thing in this case. When all of North Carolina’s District Attorney’s tell the legislature they are having a difficult time procuring justice for the citizens of this state because of the provisions of a certain law, then that’s striking. How could North Carolina’s lawmakers ignore such a plea?” said Dr. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League. “The Racial Justice Act, in my estimation, was largely a Trojan horse to effectively render the death penalty as largely, if not ultimately, inoperable. Its supporters were largely anti-death penalty proponents. Some have claimed it’s better for a guilty man to go free than for an innocent man to die. But an ethic of that nature assumes the failure to apply justice is always better than the misapplication of justice. We don’t need to be faced with an equal evil over against an equal injustice. The Racial Justice Act, however, gave us that kind of scenario and it needed to be repealed.”