It wasn't a question of if, but when the new Republican majority at the N.C. General Assembly would file a bill to repeal the 2009 Racial Justice Act, which allows death row defendants to appeal their sentences on grounds of racial discrimination. Under the progressive new law, death-row defendants who prove racial discrimination factored into their case could serve life in prison instead of being put to death by the state.
But as expected, House Majority Leader Paul "Skip" Stam, R-Wake, and three conservative colleagues filed HB 615 Monday, titled "No Discriminatory Purpose in Death Penalty." The title doesn't quite sum up the purpose of the bill, which nullifies the statute established in 2009 commonly called the Racial Justice Act (PDF, see page 3, Section 2).
The Racial Justice Act allows death-row defendants to present evidence showing their case was influenced by racial bias, including statistical evidence. But the new House bill makes reference to a U.S. Supreme Court case in which a statistical study was "insufficient to support an inference that any of the decision makers in the defendant's case acted with discriminatory purpose."
Some supporters of the Racial Justice Act say bringing in the Supreme Court references to the Georgia case of McCleskey v. Kemp is misleading.
"They took language from McCleskey, but they took only a piece of the language," said Ken Rose, a senior attorney for the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, which supports the Racial Justice Act. Rose and his colleagues at the CDPL represent several death-row inmates making appeals under the law.
"What they don't say is that no one's ever been able to get relief [under McCleskey]," Rose said. "No one has been able to show purposeful discrimination under McCleskey. [The bill] repeals the RJA and it reinstates a standard that no one can meet."
Supporters of the Racial Justice Act have arranged events and press conferences last week and this week to spread the word about the bill, which on Tuesday was referred to a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, which meets on Wednesdays. As of Tuesday night, it was not on the agenda for discussion Wednesday, April 6.
"It's going to take some time to discuss it," said Rep. H.M. "Mickey" Michaux, D-Durham, who was a co-sponsor of the bill in 2009 and currently sits on the House subcommittee to which the bill has been referred. Michaux said he would fight against the attempted repeal.
Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham Democrat and one of the primary sponsors of the RJA, said he also is organizing supporters and hopes to hold a news conference this week, if all goes as planned.
He called the references to the Supreme Court case a "bogus argument."
"You are, in fact, allowed to adopt standards and allow the use of statistical information as one of several factors to be considered by the court," McKissick said.
Prosecutors across the state have challenged the Racial Justice Act. In February, a Forsyth County judge heard prosecutors' complaints that the law was too broad and vague, and that it was unconstitutional to hold prosecutors responsible for patterns of racial bias statewide. Superior Court Judge William Wood ruled that the Racial Justice Act was constitutional.