by Matt Saldaña
May 20, 2009
On May 14, during the same week that North Carolina's death penalty cleared a significant legal hurdle, the state Senate passed a landmark bill that seeks to make capital punishment decisions more equitable. The Racial Justice Act, which passed by a 36-10 margin, would prevent the execution of defendants who can prove race was an underlying factor in the decision to seek or impose the death penalty at the time of their trial.
"Let's not be naïve. [Race] has been a factor at times in the past, and we need to recognize that," Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr., D-Durham, the bill sponsor, said before the vote. "I'd much rather see a person end up in life in prison, without parole, because it may be fair and appropriate for the offense he committed."
A recent study (PDF) conducted by two UNC-Chapel Hill professors found that defendants in North Carolina are twice as likely to be sentenced to death for capital crimes if they are black; defendants whose victims are white are 3.5 times more likely to be sentenced to death than defendants who committed identical crimes against non-white victims, the study found.
The Senate vote is bittersweet for proponents of death-penalty reform, because it includes an amendment (PDF) intended to end the state's de facto moratorium on executions that has been in place for nearly three years. The amendment—introduced by Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, who voted against the bill—would prevent doctors from being disciplined for participating in executions and would exempt the N.C. Council of State from its role in approving execution protocol. That would resolve two issues hung up in the state's courts until recently that have effectively postponed execution of the state's 163 death-row inmates since August 2006.
"What they're trying to do is make this an execution bill, and this is not that," said Rep. Larry Womble, D-Forsyth, a sponsor of the bill on the House side. "This bill is about fairness, and opportunity, for both sides—the prosecutors and also the defendants. It's a fairness bill."
[View the entire article at the Independent Weekly.]