On Wednesday the N.C. House passed the Racial Justice Act, despite a last-ditch effort by House Republicans to characterize the bill as a potential drain on the justice system, and a ploy to abolish the death penalty altogether.
The bill, which N.C. Indigent Defense Services estimated would save the state money in capital trial costs, would not overturn capital punishment in North Carolina. Instead, it 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. These defendants would instead be tried, or sentenced, to life in prison without parole. The bill now moves to the Senate for concurrence, in order to resolve differences between the two chambers' votes: the Senate version contains unrelated clauses that would ensure the resumption of the death penalty—currently on hold in North Carolina due to legal challenges—while the House version does not deal with the matter.
"Clearly, the House understands that race is still a factor in [capital] sentencing decisions," Jeremy Collins, campaign coordinator for the N.C. Coalition for a Moratorium, said after the 61-53 vote, which was later adjusted to 61-54. He added: "We're hopeful the Senate will concur."
A day after combative debate on the House floor, including a claim by Rep. Paul Stam (R-Wake) that the bill would force prosecutors to sentence more white people, and women, to death, in order to fill racial and gender quotas, the House Minority Leader was silent. Instead, Republicans tried to convince pro-death penalty Democrats to join their side. (Three Democrats voted against the bill; no Republicans supported it.)
"For those of you who support the death penalty, and support this bill, I'd like to address my remarks to you," Rep. Leo Daughtry (R-Johnston) said, before arguing that Racial Justice Act claims would "clog our system up to the point where we will no longer have a death penalty."
Yet, Rep. Grier Martin (D-Wake) insisted the distinction among the bill's supporters was moot.
"It's entirely possible that someone supports the death penalty out of a strong sense of justice," he said. "It is not a paradox, and in fact I think it's entirely consistent with that same sense of justice that they also be driven to not see the death penalty implemented in a way that executes someone who is innocent, or in this case, reflects the racism that we all know still lingers in our society."
On the point about racism, Daughtry seemed to agree. Earlier in the debate, he addressed a pending matter of concurrence between the House and Senate versions: whether defendants can present statewide statistics to make a Racial Justice Act claim. (The House version allows for statewide statistics, while the Senate version only allows for statistics within the county, judicial division or prosecutorial district where the death sentence was sought or imposed.)
"If you do use the statistics of the state, those advocates for the death penalty are going to lose, because there is evidence of racial discrimination in the state," Daughtry said.
Rep. Rick Glazier (D-Cumberland) said he agreed with Daughtry, but had "arrived at a different conclusion."
"The fact that someone is African American doesn't mean they get to write a petition saying, 'I'm African American, there's a disproportionate of African Americans in jail [with death sentences], therefore, strike my death penalty.' No one is making that argument, nor would it fly," he said.
Instead, Glazier said the bill would allow defendants to present data within the context of their own trial, and argued "there's no reason not to say that people ought to have this right."
He added: "We do no honor to any victim of any crime by turning around and imposing the death penalty on someone because of their race."
Yet in a rambling speech, Rep. Sarah Stevens (R-Surry) said the use of statistics would "delay and impair" capital punishment, and "is not going to to help the victims with the true emotion that's there."
"Nothing about the death penalty is fair. The victims had no say as to who would kill them. At the same time, we have had people who were killed when they were defending themselves. These people fall under these statistics," she said. "We're going to take something that is this personal, and this emotional, and turn it into something statistical."