RALEIGH, N.C. — The state Senate agreed Wednesday to do away completely with North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act.
The measure was included in a bill that includes several changes to capital punishment rules designed by supporters to restart executions after a more than six-year hiatus.
Senators voted 33-14 along party lines for the Republican-backed measure, which includes mostly technical changes to administering executions in the state.
In light of a state Supreme Court decision, the bill makes clear that doctors, pharmacists and nurses can participate in executions without fear of being punished by the state boards that regulate them. State public safety officials also would report regularly to legislators about how they’re training execution teams to carry out lethal injections in a constitutionally lawful manner.
No one on North Carolina’s death row has been executed since 2006 because of various legal appeals.
“We have a moral obligation” to carry out executions as the law requires, said Sen. Thom Goolsby, R-New Hanover, the bill’s primary sponsor. “Victims’ families have suffered far too long. It’s time to stop the legal wrangling and give them the peace we owe them and they deserve.”
Debate focused largely on repealing a 2009 law, already weakened by the GOP-controlled legislature last year, that created a method for death-row prisoners seeking life sentences on racial bias claims. The prisoners can use statistics and other evidence to persuade a judge that bias influenced their sentences.
Nearly all the 150-plus inmates on death row – including white and black prisoners – filed for reviews under the Racial Justice Act. That’s proof, according to Racial Justice Act opponents and many local prosecutors, that the law is overbroad and was designed by Democrats four years ago to place a de facto moratorium on the death penalty. Republicans took control of the state legislature after the 2010 elections.
The Racial Justice Act is “nothing but an end run around capital punishment in North Carolina,” Goolsby said.
Cumberland County Judge Gregory Weeks last year reduced the death sentences of four prisoners to life in prison because he ruled race played a role in prosecutors’ decision to reject potential black jurors in their capital crimes. Three of the four prisoners are black, while the fourth is a Lumbee Indian.
Bill opponents said lawmakers want to ignore racial discrimination by prosecutors through repealing the law. A repeal, which would cancel pending reviews that haven’t yet been heard by a judge, also will lead to additional legal fights about whether the prisoners can lose their rights to a hearing, said Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham.
McKissick called racial bias uncovered in Weeks’ hearings to date “totally repugnant.”
“The Racial Justice Act sent a strong message to the prosecutors of this state, that when you seek the death penalty that it should be free of racial bias,’ McKissick said at a news conference before the floor debate. “We don’t want to turn the hands of time backwards.”
The Senate voted by a similar 33-14 margin against an amendment from Sen. Earline Parmon, D-Forsyth, that would have removed the Racial Justice Act repeal from the bill. Parmon said she wanted to give the chance for senators who support capital punishment and the Racial Justice Act to vote for the measure.
The Racial Justice Act “is not about guilt or innocence,” she said during the debate. “It’s about fairness in our court system.”
The bill now goes to the House, where legislators joined with the Senate last year to override a veto from then-Gov. Beverly Perdue, a Democrat, on the 2012 bill to scale back the Racial Justice Act.
The 2012 law makes clear statistics alone cannot prove race was a significant factor in a death row inmate’s conviction or sentence. The scope of data such as jury pool and death-penalty case statistics also was limited.