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July 15, 2009

Robust legislative debate over NC Racial Justice Act

As detailed in this local article, which is headined "Death penalty bill provokes a battle: Measure moves in fractious House," legislators in North Carolina are engaged in a robust debate over a bill seeking to prevent racial bias from infecting the operation of the death penalty. Here are some excerpts:

Judges would be allowed to consider whether racial bias played a role in the decision to seek or impose the death penalty, according to a bill on which the N.C. House voted Tuesday evening after a long and emotionally charged debate.  "This is a fairness bill," said Rep. Larry Womble, the Forsyth Democrat who helped champion the bill. "If we're going to kill people, we must be as fair and objective as we can.  This allows one more chance for justice to be blind. ... It's not a get-out-of-jail free card for anybody."

Democrats cited studies showing blacks are far more likely to be sentenced to death in North Carolina than whites.  Further, a defendant is 3.5 times more likely to face the death penalty when the victim is white than when the victim is black.

Republicans strongly oppose the measure, saying its passage will clog the courts with frivolous appeals, cost millions and impose a de facto moratorium on executions. "This bill is not really about race," said Rep. Paul Stam of Wake County, the minority leader. "It's about the death penalty."

The N.C. Racial Justice Act passed its second reading in the House 61-55, with every Republican and four Democrats voting no.   A final House vote could come today, and the bill would then return to the Senate, where it may have a difficult time gaining approval and may require a compromise. That's because the House version left out a section of the Senate bill designed to help remove obstacles that have effectively halted executions for two years.  Senate leaders said that provision must be included for the Racial Justice Act to pass that chamber....

On Tuesday, Rep. Dan Ingle, a Republican from Alamance County and former law enforcement officer, dramatically threw a thick law book into his waste basket to illustrate that approving the bill would be the equivalent of trashing the state's criminal code....

Stam read an e-mail from Locke Bell, a prosecutor in Gaston County, who said that only one black man was on death row from his district, while all the rest were white. If the law were approved, the prosecutor complained, white defendants could make a good case they were being discriminated against. "I would have to seek execution of more black men to balance things out," Locke wrote.

Stam, a lawyer, attempted to make the same point using gender, saying that men are proportionally far more likely to face the death penalty than women and suggesting more women be killed for the sake of fairness.  He also raised concerns about the bill being retroactive, which would allow current death row inmates to appeal convictions that may have occurred decades ago.

July 15, 2009 at 09:30 AM | Permalink


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I notice that the Gaston County prosecutor left out some rather key information such as the demographic information in his county (82.7% White, 15% Black which means there are approximately 5 and 1/2 times more White residents than Black residents there) according to the most recent information from the Census Bureau. He also seems to have left out of the number of Whites under a death sentence (4) and that according to the state, 2 Blacks had their death sentences reduced to Life (there has also been 1 White who died while on death row and 1 White who had their sentence reduced to Life). No executions are noted to have taken place for persons from that county. So since 1977 there have been a total of 6 Whites and 3 Blacks sentenced to death from a county where there are more than 5 times more Whites than Black.

Posted by: Zack | Jul 15, 2009 2:17:01 PM

Zack, the issue, of course, is not the raw population numbers, but rather the percentage of murderers. When that's looked at, whites are actually overrepresented nationwide in terms of executed offenders. The black victim disparity is explained by the fact that, typically, black victims are concentrated in areas where the death penalty is (a) not used much on a per murder basis or (b) not available at all.

Posted by: federalist | Jul 15, 2009 3:25:13 PM

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