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NC death penalty bias law heading to governor

The Associated Press

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The Republican-led Legislature gave final approval Wednesday to a bill limiting the use of trial statistics for people on North Carolina's death row who received another way in 2009 to prove racial bias in sentencing.

The measure now goes to Gov. Beverly Perdue, who vetoed other legislation last December that would have essentially voided the Racial Justice Act. This time, it appears the General Assembly has veto-proof majorities in both chambers.

The Senate finalized its passage with a vote of 30-18 in favor of the House's rewrite of the bill. The House approved the bill last week with the help of five Democrats. Perdue spokesman Mark Johnson said the governor will review the bill when it reaches her desk. She'll have 10 days to decide whether to veto the bill or let it become law.

The Racial Justice Act directs judges to reduce a death-row inmate's sentence to life in prison if they find race was a significant factor in a convicted murderer receiving a death sentence or in the composition of jurors hearing a case.

Opponents say the changes gut the intent of the law, but many of the state's district attorneys have said the Racial Justice Act has clogged up the court system and delayed the carrying out of capital punishment in North Carolina. Nearly all the 150-plus inmates on North Carolina's death row filed for reviews under the law, including white defendants convicted of killing white victims.

The bill makes clear that statistics alone cannot prove race was a significant factor.

"They have really defeated the legitimate purpose of what this law was," said Sen. Buck Newton, R-Wilson, at the beginning of the Senate debate. "We don't want to see racial bias tainting our courtrooms. I think everybody agreed to that. The question that we have before us in this bill is how are we going to manage that."

The law caps the period of time which death penalty statistics can be used to prove racial bias to effectively 12 years around the murder case. There is currently no limit on the time. Statistics also could be entered into a Racial Justice Act hearing for the county and prosecutorial district where the homicide occurred, rather than anywhere in the entire state as the 2009 law allows.

Senate Democrats said voting for the overhaul would strike a blow against the integrity of the criminal justice system and affect fairness in carrying out capital punishment.

They pointed to a study by Michigan State University on North Carolina death penalty cases over 20 years found prosecutors eliminated black jurors more than twice as often as white jurors. The study also found a defendant is nearly three times more likely to be sentenced to death if at least one of the victims is white.

"We've turned back the hands of time on ridding ourselves of ridding ourselves of prejudice in our courtrooms," said Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, after the vote. "When they've come forth today and gutted the Racial Justice Act, they've allowed those prejudices to creep back into our courtrooms once again."

Kentucky is the only state with a similar law as the Racial Justice Act. The North Carolina law received its first test in April when a Superior Court judge cited the Michigan State study in ordering a death-row prisoner in April to receive a life sentence. Judge Greg Weeks ruled the case was so tainted by racially influenced decisions by prosecutors.

Sarah Preston with the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union called the Racial Justice Act "a nationally recognized civil rights law that should serve as a model across this nation."

Death penalty opponents are likely to lobby Perdue to veto the bill, as they did successfully last December when she blocked passage of the previous Republican attempt to weaken the Racial Justice Act. She wrote at the time "it is simply unacceptable for racial prejudice to play a role in the imposition of the death penalty in North Carolina." She also signed the 2009 law.

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