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August 6, 2009

NC Racial Justice Act going to governor's desk

This local story, headlined "Racial Justice Act passes, now goes to Perdue," provides the latest news on a notable death penalty bill that may be on the verge of becoming law in North Carolina:

The General Assembly has approved a landmark bill that will allow death-row inmates to challenge the death penalty by arguing that there is systemic racial bias in the way that capital punishment has been applied. 

Under the bill, which is expected to be signed into law by Gov. Bev Perdue, an inmate will be able to present statistical evidence showing racial disparities in how the death penalty has been used. If a judge finds the evidence convincing, the judge can overturn that inmate's death sentence and convert it to a sentence of life in prison.  Similarly, in future murder trials in North Carolina, judges will be able to block prosecutors from pursuing the death penalty if they find a historical pattern of racial bias in the use of the death penalty.

The bill is seen by its supporters as a long-overdue solution to a history of discrimination that they say permeates the criminal-justice system and the system of capital punishment.  Opponents, including prosecutors and victims' groups, say that the bill substitutes statistical data and historical trends for the particular facts of a case. It will, they say, set up an enormous roadblock for capital punishment and reopen old wounds for the families of murder victims.

The bill, which supporters named the N.C. Racial Justice Act, has been the subject of intense debate and legislative wrangling for months.  Last night, the N.C. Senate voted 25-18 to adopt a version of the bill that had been approved by the N.C. House last month.  In both chambers, Republicans opposed the bill, and most Democrats supported it.

The Senate's vote sends the bill to Perdue, a Democrat.  A spokesman for Perdue said that she will closely review the bill but is likely to sign it.  If she does, North Carolina will become just the second state — after Kentucky — to enact a law allowing challenges to the death penalty on the basis of statistical disparities from previous cases.

As I have noted in the past, it is not clear what (if any) impact Kentucky's law on this issue has impacted the operation of that state's capital punishment system.  Thus, I am hesitant to assert that the enactment of the N.C. Racial Justice Act will have a profound practical impact.  And this legislative development is still symbolically interesting and important even if it does not end up having a profound effect on death penalty practices in North Carolina.

August 6, 2009 at 11:17 AM | Permalink


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Here's a link to one local DA's reasons for opposing the measure:


Tom can be a little over the top, but he's sincere when he describes the practical problems with this bill. Oh well, the Governor's going to sign it regardless, but hey -- that's politics.

Posted by: NCProsecutor | Aug 6, 2009 11:56:44 AM

As a resident of North Carolina I favor impeaching Gov Perdue. I am betting that she uses her pardon powers for the first time to save Gov Easley.

Posted by: Anon | Aug 6, 2009 9:19:16 PM

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