The North Carolina House of Representatives referred a controversial bill to committee this week. House Bill 615 is titled “An Act to Reform the Racial Justice Act of 2009 to Be Consistent With the United States Supreme Court’s Ruling in Mccleskey v. Kemp.” The Racial Justice Act was a hot topic during the 2010 election cycle for the new majority party in the House. The proposal has riled criminal defense lawyers and death penalty opponents, who claim the sponsors are saying “reform” but actually mean “repeal.”
The Racial Justice Act was enacted in 2009 to address claims that some death penalties were meted out based on racial prejudice. The claims were backed up by a study showing that a white murder victim in North Carolina is 2.6 times more likely to earn a defendant the death penalty than a victim of color. This was true regardless of the color of the defendant. Also, the research found that 31 of 159 death row inmates had all-white juries and 38 only one person of color on the jury — almost 20 percent and just over 23 percent, respectively.
Under the Act, a death row inmate or a defendant facing the death penalty may use statistics, including the study discussed above, and other relevant evidence to prove that racial bias was a significant factor in sentencing. If the court was convinced, the inmate’s sentence would be amended to life in prison.
House Bill 615 turns on the “significant factor” language. The bill would remove that condition, requiring instead that the inmate prove the death sentence was sought or imposed with “discriminatory purpose.” The bill also prohibits the prisoner from using statewide statistics as evidence of bias.
We’ll discuss the arguments for and against the bill in our next post.
Source: NBC17.com, “State Republicans file bill to repeal the Racial Justice Act,” Michael Hewlett, updated 04/06/11