Override of Governor’s Veto should help end de-facto moratorium on NC death penalty
By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
RALEIGH — Individual responsibility — the concept isn’t popular among criminals, but it’s a basic principle of justice that North Carolina lawmakers are trying to restore with their override of Gov. Bev Perdue’s veto of a scaled back version of the Racial Justice Act.
“This bill has enjoyed broad support from within the law enforcement community and the criminal justice system,” Speaker of the House Thom Tillis (R-Mecklenburg) said of Senate Bill 416. “This bill ensures that the families of victims — not convicted murderers — will be shielded from the pain that would accompany an evasion of justice that could occur if this bill did not become law.”
House Majority Leader Paul Stam (R-Wake) said the override of the Governor’s veto “alleviates the effects of the Racial Justice Act, which essentially imposed a five- to six-year moratorium on the death penalty … when it passed in 2009.” He said the end of that de facto moratorium is now within sight.
One of only two such laws in the nation, North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act was passed three years ago with the goal of eradicating racial bias from capital cases. Via the law, death row inmates could appeal their sentences and use statistics from any time period and any area of the state to try to prove the possibility of discrimination in their prosecution. If successful, their sentence would be commuted to life without parole. When 152 of 156 prisoners, many of them white, filed appeals under the RJA, it was clear to most members of the Legislature that the law needed to be tightened.
The new law limits statistical evidence that can be used to 10 years prior to the offense and two years after the sentence and requires that data be taken from the county or prosecutorial district in which the defendant was tried. It also clarifies that any convicted murderer who succeeds in having his sentence reduced to life in prison must waive any right to future parole. The former law had raised concerns that those convicted prior to the state’s adoption of a “life without parole” sentence would be able to legally challenge that punishment and eventually come up for parole.
“This change in the law was needed to bring balance and logic to the issue,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina. “No one is denying that there may have been racial bias in past cases, and prosecutors must be vigilant to avoid it. But the crux of the issue is this — why should something that happened 40 or 50 years ago in another part of the state be used to diminish a person’s individual responsibility for the crime that he committed yesterday? It simply doesn’t make sense.”
He said the limits set in S 416, which makes it clear that more than statistics are needed to prove discrimination, will help keep the RJA from being abused while still making it viable tool for anyone who has evidence that he was treated unjustly because of his race.