By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
RALEIGH — The state’s controversial Racial Justice Act, passed in 2009 and one of only two such laws in the nation, may soon undergo changes that could make the death penalty once again a reality in North Carolina.
Senate Bill 416, “Amend Death Penalty Procedures” passed the House Wednesday with a veto-proof 73-47 margin and is awaiting action in the Senate Committee on Judiciary II.
“This action is necessary to end the moratorium on the death penalty,” said House Majority Leader Paul Stam (Wake) in a press release. “The death penalty acts as a deterrent only if it is used.”
Senate Bill 416, which is expected to win concurrence from the Senate as early as next week, mainly deals with the use of evidence to prove racial discrimination. While the RJA had opened the door for convicted murderers to use statistics from other locations and time periods to try to prove the possibility of discrimination in their cases, the new bill would limit statistical evidence to 10 years prior to the offense and two years after the sentence. It would also require that data be limited to the county or prosecutorial district in which the defendant was tried.
Further, the proposed law would clarify that statistical evidence alone — the simple fact that members of one race are not proportionately represented on a jury or appear to have been more likely to have been tried capitally in a particular location — is insufficient to establish that race was a significant factor in a specific case. It would also include a provision that a defendant seeking relief waives any claims relating to parole eligibility. Although many lawmakers had continually insisted that the RJA was not a “get out of jail free card,” but simply a way to commute an unfair death sentence to life imprisonment, there were fears that defendants sentenced to death prior to the introduction of “life without parole” into the law could claim violations of the Ex Post Facto and Due Process clauses and win an appearance before the parole board.
According to Stam, the bill “alleviates the effects of the Racial Justice Act, which essentially imposed a five- to six-year moratorium on the death penalty in North Carolina when it passed in 2009.”
Because the RJA allowed all inmates on death row to claim they were racially discriminated against during their trial, by last year 152 of 156 prisoners, many of them white, had filed claims, putting their cases on indefinite hold.
In fact, only one RJA case has been heard — Marcus Robinson’s death sentence for the murder of Erik Tomblom was commuted — and that one is under appeal.
“We know that lawmakers who passed the Racial Justice Act in 2009 were trying to improve the judicial system and make it clear that racial bias has absolutely no place in the courtroom,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League. “Unfortunately, instead the overly broad legislation became a tool for convicted murderers to halt the wheels of justice. We believe this bill will add needed balance and restore the exercise of the death penalty in North Carolina.”