NC Racial Justice Act passes, awaits governor's signature

Original source:

The North Carolina Racial Justice Act passed in the state Senate this week and now heads to Gov. Bev Perdue for her signature.

As Facing South previously reported, the N.C. Racial Justice Act is a landmark piece of legislation that would allow defendants in death-penalty cases and death row inmates the right to challenge prosecutions on grounds of racial bias.

As the Winston-Salem Journal reports:

Under the bill...an inmate will be able to present statistical evidence showing racial disparities in how the death penalty has been used. If a judge finds the evidence convincing, the judge can overturn that inmate's death sentence and convert it to a sentence of life in prison.

Similarly, in future murder trials in North Carolina, judges will be able to block prosecutors from pursuing the death penalty if they find a historical pattern of racial bias in the use of the death penalty.

The bill is seen by its supporters as a long-overdue solution to a history of discrimination that they say permeates the criminal-justice system and the system of capital punishment.

Social justice advocates are calling the bill's passage a milestone victory for the South, one that has implications across the region and the country when it comes to the continued racial disparities in the criminal justice system and in the application of the death penalty.

North Carolina currently has 163 people on death row, 60 percent of whom are black. Supporters of the Racial Justice Act point to a 2001 study by researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill that found that the odds of a defendant receiving the death penalty in North Carolina increase if the victim of the murder is white.

The N.C. Racial Justice Act has faced an uphill battle getting passed in North Carolina.

As NC Policy Watch explains:

The Racial Justice Act has been subjected to a cruel, years-long political game among legislators wary that their votes might make them vulnerable in an election year. But more than most questions put before our lawmakers, this bill is about life and death judgments. Lawmakers have long ignored racial prejudices and assumptions that are typically unspoken and infinitely present in capital sentencing.

In the last year, three innocent black men were released from death row. It's bad enough that those men served a combined 41 years in prison on death row, but they would have been executed without the state's court-imposed moratorium on the death penalty.

Today blacks make up 20 percent of the state's population but 60 percent of those on death row.

Perdue is expected to sign the bill into law, making North Carolina the second state in the nation - following Kentucky - that has such legislation.