North Carolina Senate Rewrites Racial Justice Act

Civil rights advocates say that the changes are so drastic, the law should be considered repealed.

Posted: 12/01/2011 08:57 PM EST

Just two years after passing the Racial Justice Act, which allows death-row inmates to use statistical evidence of racial bias to challenge their sentences, North Carolina’s senate has voted to repeal the law, and civil rights advocates say the changes are so drastic that the law has essentially been repealed.


The bill has been referred to as the Racial "Injustice" Act, because it would make it more difficult for defendants to prove that racial bias played a role in their sentencing by requiring prosecutors to have to openly admit racial discrimination.


“These efforts point to an extremist agenda that can be called nothing less than Legislative Racism, Classism and Regression rather than an agenda of Legislative Progress and Prosperity for all North Carolinians,” said Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP, in a statement addressing the senate move.


A study of North Carolina death-row sentences showed that, in the state, a defendant is 2.6 times more likely to be sentenced to death if at least one of the victims were white. Since the Racial Justice Act was passed, all but three of the 157 people currently on death row have sought hearings under the new law.


Republican lawmakers and supporters of the changes to the law maintain that the senate vote Monday was not a backdoor attempt to repeal the Racial Justice Act, but merely a tweak of the existing policy.


"This is not a repeal of the Racial Justice Act," Sen. Thom Goolsby, a Republican from Wilmington, said on the Senate floor, according to the News & Observer. "It's a reform, a modification."


However, earlier in the day, Sen. Josh Stein, a Democrat, said said that the bill "is an utter and total repeal."


While civil rights advocates feel that the act provides an opportunity to address racial disparities in death-row sentencing, some opponents of the law fear that instead of addressing racism, the law is an attack on the death penalty itself.


"We have a moral obligation to make sure justice is served in these cases," Goolsby said. "The Racial Justice Act has very little to do with race or justice. Instead, it's turned out to be a Trojan horse, a back-door attempt to end the death penalty in North Carolina."


Now, the NAACP and anti-death penalty group People of Faith Against the Death Penalty are making a last ditch appeal to state governor Bev Perdue, asking her to veto the senate’s rewrite of the law.

Both lawmakers and advocates are scrambling for a quick resolution to the matter as the first case to be tried under the act is scheduled to begin in January. The case attracted national attention and charges of procedural racism earlier this year when prosecutors attempted to subpoena the African-American judge who is scheduled to preside over the matter; a move that would have forced him off the case.


"We've come a very long way over the last 50 years," said Sen. Floyd McKissick, chief architect of the act. "We've made a lot of progress as a society and as a country. We can all share in that pride. But there's still remnants that exist, remnants of institutional racism, remnants of hatred in the hearts and minds of people.”


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(Photo: AP Photo/Seth Perlman)