by Matt Saldaña
See updates below.
The North Carolina Racial Justice Act (HB 472/SB 461), which would prevent the execution of defendants who were sentenced to death on the basis of race, cleared the House Judiciary I committee today, and is headed for a house floor vote. Meanwhile, a Senate version of the bill will be voted on in the Senate Judiciary I committee tonight.
Rep. Paul Luebke (D-Durham), one of the bill’s sponsors, said in an interview that the the Racial Justice Act, and other death penalty reforms moving through the Legislature, represent “important steps in making the death penalty a fair remedy.”
North Carolina has not executed anyone since 2006, although 163 inmates are currently on death row. Before North Carolina can resume executions, it must first await the outcome of a case in Wake County Superior Court that will determine if the Council of State violated state administrative code by signing off on the execution protocol without allowing public comment.
The Racial Justice Act--one of several bills that would reform sentencing, and post-conviction appeal procedures, for the death penalty--would place the burden of proof on defendants to show that race was an underlying factor in the county, district or state where they were sentenced to death at the time of their trial. If so, their death sentences, if already applied, would be reduced to life without parole.
Amnesty International has found that 79 percent of homicide cases resulting in a death penalty involved a white victim, though half of all homicide victims in the United States are black. And a 2001 study conducted by two University of North Carolina professors, which analyzed cases over a four-year period in the 1990s, found the odds of receiving a death sentence in North Carolina grew 3.5 times if the victim is white. That study, published by the Common Sense Foundation, found that black defendants in the state are also twice as likely to receive a death sentence, when comparing identical crimes.
Of the 205 206 defendants sentenced to death on death row, or executed, in North Carolina since 1977, 100—or 49 percent—are black, although the state has had an African-American population of roughly 22 percent over the past three decades.
Read the full story about the Racial Justice Act, and other death-peantly reform bills moving through the N.C. General Assembly, in tomorrow's Independent Weekly, and online at indyweek.com.
Update (3:55 p.m.) Corrected, with strikethroughs. This figure (206) does not include any inmates sentenced to death, and later exonerated. Courtesy N.C. Department of Correction.
Update No.2 (5/13/09): The Senate version cleared the Senate Judiciary I Committee last night, meaning the bill is headed for both the House and Senate chambers. The Senate J1 committee adopted changes to the districts that would be analyzed for racial disparities in sentencing to the "county, the prosecutorial district, or any prosecutorial district immediately contiguous to the boundaries of that prosecutorial district at the time the death sentence was sought or imposed." That leaves out the State as a whole, which still remains in the House version.