RALEIGH (AP) — A North Carolina House panel endorsed a bill Wednesday that repeals a procedure for condemned inmates to challenge death sentences on racial grounds, sending the measure to the full House for final passage.
The bill is intended to restart executions in the state by ending the Racial Justice Act, which was passed four years ago when Democrats controlled state government. The act allows a judge to reduce a death sentence to life in prison if race is found to be a significant factor in the case.
It was weakened last legislative session by new Republican majorities. The state hasn’t carried out an execution since 2006 because of various legal appeals.
The bill also protects medical professionals from disciplinary action from licensing boards for assisting in an execution, but the provision repealing the Racial Justice Act has generated the most attention, drawing debate from district attorneys on both sides of the issue, the families of murder victims and religious leaders.
The bill already passed the Senate. Republicans control both chambers of the General Assembly and the governor’s mansion.
The bill originally allowed inmates to cite statistics in their appeals, but Republicans repealed that provision last session. A Cumberland County judge reduced the sentences of four convicted murderers on racial grounds last year, ruling on three of the cases after the rollback of the act.
The judge first cited a Michigan State study referred to by supporters of the act that found evidence of prosecutors striking black people from murder-trial juries at more than twice the rate of others between 1990 and 2010.
Critics note nearly all of the 150-plus inmates on death row have used the law to delay executions, creating a logjam that delays justice for the families of victims.
Sen. Thom Goolsby, R-New Hanover and the bill’s lead sponsor, said the law isn’t working as intended. As worded now, it has allowed white inmates to challenge their sentences in certain districts, he said.
“It is a ridiculous law poorly written and has worked out to be an unbelievable drain because DAs have to deal with these cases rather than prosecute in their districts,” he said.
Democrats conceded the law has flaws, but they argued throwing out the entire act after what came to light in the Cumberland case and multiple studies ignores a legitimate problem.
Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, said the Racial Justice Act has helped uncover strong evidence in Cumberland County that the state’s racially charged past is still a part of its present, and that evidence can’t be unlearned.
“We no longer paint on a clear canvas,” he said. “We are ready to bury evidence that should be heard.”