by Bob Geary
Family members of a half-dozen victims of murder in North Carolina met this morning with Gov. Bev Perdue, urging her to veto Senate Bill 9 and preserve the landmark Racial Justice Act. The RJA allows death-row inmates to challenge their sentence on grounds it may have been racially motivated. If they prevail, their death sentences would be changed to life in prison without possibility of parole. Perdue signed the RJA into law in 2009.
According to Scott Bass, interim executive director of Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation of NC, Perdue did not tell the group what she intends to do with SB 9. "She listened, and she seemed to get it," Bass said. The Republican-led General Assembly completed action on the bill, which would return the law to its pre-RJA form, two weeks ago today. Perdue has a little more than two more weeks left to decide if she wants to veto the measure, sign it or let it become law without her signature.
If Perdue intends to veto it, as seems likely, her delay can be seen as giving the RJA's proponents time to counter claims by the Republicans and the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys. The DA's group came to Raleigh two weeks ago with other murder victims' family members who support the death penalty and want it imposed in their cases regardless whether racial bias infects the system of capital punishment.
The DA's also asserted that some death-row inmates could be eligible for parole if they win their RJA appeals, an assertion that appears to be false and which Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, one of the law's authors, denounced today in no uncertain terms. "They've marched in families ... and tried to make the issue something it's not," McKissick said. "We've seen things very much distorted."
McKissick said the only question under the RJA is whether a death-row convict will be executed or, if his death sentence is shown to have been the product of racial bias, be allowed to live but kept in prison for life. Without the RJA, he went on, some DA's were systematically excluding qualified blacks from jury pools when the defendant was black. "We can't have a system where you're looking for lily-white juries," McKissick said. "The criminal justice system has got to work with integrity ... and when that death sentence is imposed, it's done without racial bias."
Andre Smith, whose 21-year old son Daniel was killed at a Raleigh nightclub in 2007, made the same point. Smith said some RJA's opponents have intentionally misrepresented what the law is about. "It's not a get-out-of-jail-free card," he said.
His son's killer was caught immediately, convicted and sentenced to life without parole, Smith said. The death penalty wasn't sought in Daniel's case because the killer, though armed with a knife, was deemed not to have planned to kill anyone with it when he came to the club.
That was acceptable to Smith, a Buddhist who doesn't support capital punishment anyway, he said. Still, he wants his son's killer to remain behind bars for life. "I would never want my son's killer back on the streets again," Smith said.
Bass' group, which is part of a national organization opposed to capital punishment, joined with People of Faith Against the Death Penalty last week in calling for North Carolina to get rid of the death penalty.
Short of that, said Jean Parks, a member of the group from Asheville, the system of imposing a death sentence must be free of racial taint.
Parks' sister was murdered in Raleigh 36 years ago. Her killer received a life sentence and, per the law before 1994, he is eligible for parole now, though the state parole board has denied his requests, Parks said.
"Although I would like to see North Carolina repeal the death penalty, as long as we have it, we must make it as fair as humanly possible," she said. "Justice tainted by racism is not true justice for my sister."
Tom Fewel of Chapel Hill, whose daughter was murdered in 1985, testified in the sentencing phase of her killer's trial that he and his wife opposed capital punishment, helping the killer avoid a death sentence. He, too, said the RJA should be given a chance to weed out racially tainted sentences. "Not only has racial bias impacted death sentences in our state historically, but we have evidence that bias has impacted who is on death row right now," Fewel said. "We can't say we're for justice and then ignore that fact.
Bass said his group's members aren't "against" the pro-death penalty family members who came to Raleigh, but rather "stand in solidarity with them" and share their pain.
They aren't against the DA's either, Bass said. But the DA's should be held accountable, and the RJA is a tool for holding them accountable when they ask a jury for a death sentence.