By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
June 6, 2013
RALEIGH — Capital punishment may become a reality again in North Carolina as lawmakers look to deal a death blow to the Racial Justice Act and put into law protections for healthcare professionals who assist with executions.
After extensive debate, the House on Wednesday passed its version of the Capital Punishment/Amendments bill, S 306, and sent it back to the Senate, which is expected to concur. Wednesday’s third reading vote was 77-39 with Rep. William Brisson (Bladen) the only Democrat joining Republicans on the issue.
Supporters of the Racial Justice Act, passed in 2009, said the law, unique in the nation, is necessary to ferret out systematic prejudice from the justice system. But opponents argued that the ill-fated measure, which led some 152 of 156 death row inmates to appeal to have their sentences commuted to life without parole — including white killers of white victims convicted by white juries — was simply one more building block in a de facto death penalty moratorium.
Majority Leader Paul Stam (R-Wake) told fellow lawmakers that before the RJA became law, death row inmates had 8 to 15 years of appeals while their cases were heard by some 45 judges. He said RJA added roughly 6 years and 8 more judges to the process.
“How many judges is enough?” he asked, pointing repeatedly to Section 5(b) of the bill which reiterates all of the rights afforded defendants via multiple avenues of appeal, including the right to file a motion for appropriate relief at the trial court level, where claims of racial discrimination may be heard, as well as at the federal level through a petition of habeas corpus. Even prior to the RJA, a capital defendant “had the right to raise the issue of whether a prosecutor sought the death penalty on the basis of race, whether the jury was selected on the basis of race, or any other matter which evidenced discrimination on the basis of race.”
“All these same rights, existing prior to the enactment of Article 101 of Chapter 15A of the General Statutes, remain the law of this State after its repeal,” the bill spells out. What RJA opponents want eliminated is the use of statistics gleaned from other cases or other time periods to try to prove discrimination in the case at hand.
“Everything we’ve learned about criminal justice is we judge the person based on their prior record, their prior acts in terms of sentencing,” said Rep. Sarah Stevens (R-Surry), during Tuesday’s debate. “We look at the actual crime they did. Was it heinous, was it in the commission of another felony? There are very specific facts to get the death penalty, and there is not a person on death row that the jury has not found that they had criminal histories … that the crime they committed was particularly heinous.”
On Wednesday she said if using statistics to prove discrimination was legitimate, then the handful of women on death row must be proof of gender discrimination in the death penalty as well.
Rep. Glazier (D-Cumberland) also addressed the bill both days, laying out the case for keeping the RJA in a 20-minute speech on Tuesday in which he begged lawmakers not to “bury the evidence” of racial discrimination, but to move on to heal the wounds. He said prosecutors who made decisions to strike potential jurors based on their color may not have “race-based bones in their body,” but that they are also “a product of their culture, their training and their time.”
Rep. Darren Jackson (D-Wake) floated an amendment that would have omitted the RJA repeal and made the bill only about protecting healthcare professionals from being censured for taking part in executions. He said his proposal would help restart those executions without forcing death penalty proponents to vote away the RJA, a move he said could lead to even more appeals since four cases have already been heard under the law. But the House voted 73 to 39 to table his amendment on a motion from Rep. Stam.
The Senate is expected to approve the House version of the bill. It could be on Gov. Pat McCrory’s desk by the end of next week.