Bias on death row? North Carolina lawmakers now not so sure
The North Carolina Senate on Monday approved a bill that critics view as a gutting of the Racial Justice Act, the state law that gives death row inmates and death penalty defendants the ability to use statistics on racial bias as a way to challenge their prosecutions.
The original law was passed in 2009 by a Democratic-controlled Legislature and signed into law by Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue. But last November, Republicans won majorities in both houses, and many of them sided with state prosecutors who have argued that the law would overburden the justice system with new litigation and create a "backdoor deal" to end the death penalty in North Carolina.
The House approved the new bill in June. Now the issue presents a conundrum for Perdue, a death-penalty-supporting Democrat who has effectively navigated tricky political cross-currents in a state that voted for Barack Obama in 2008, only to give the GOP control of the Legislature for the first time in more than a century in 2010.
There's been no word from the governor's office on her next move.
Critics of the original law have questioned whether statistical analyses of death-penalty cases around the state should have any bearing on individual cases under review. Angie West, who lost a loved one to an inmate currently on death row, said at a news conference that it would be wrong to let the inmate off "simply because there's a statistic in another part of the state that says he should get a lighter sentence."
But supporters of the original law say the statistics paint a chilling picture of ongoing systemic bias against minorities. An oft-cited Michigan State University study found that a defendant in North Carolina was 2.6 times more likely to be sentenced to death in cases in which at least one victim was white.
The News & Observer newspaper reported that 154 of the state's 157 death-row inmates have demanded hearings under the Racial Justice Act. Some of those cases, reporter Craig Jarvis noted, "seemed to have nothing to do with race."
Republican state Sen. Thom Goolsby said the new bill would not be a repeal, but a "modification" of the original law. Sen. Josh Stein, a Democrat, characterized it as "utter and total repeal," according to the newspaper.
-- Richard Fausset in Atlanta
Photo: A statue of Lady Justice stands atop the courthouse in Goldsboro, N.C. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times