by Matt Saldaña
After approving versions of roughly three-dozen bills, hammering out a state budget, and deliberating for more than three hours, the N.C. Senate had one bill left on its agenda Wednesday night: the Racial Justice Act. The Senate had previously passed a version of the landmark bill, which would prevent the execution of defendants on the basis of race, but not before tacking on a controversial amendment—introduced by Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham)—that would simultaneously ensure the resumption of capital punishment in North Carolina.
When it came time for the Senate to concur with a “clean” House version that abandoned the controversial clauses, Sen. Floyd McKissick (D-Durham), the bill’s sponsor, stood up, pointed his finger to the chamber’s door, and left in a hurry. Later, the chamber recessed for nearly an hour while the Democrats held a private caucus on the bill.
At roughly 7:45 p.m., the Democrats emerged, and McKissick—who had delayed the vote twice in the past week to garner enough supporters—said, “I would simply ask my colleagues to concur.”
After Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand (D-Cumberland), and two other senators, “paired” their votes with legislators who were absent—essentially dodging a vote on the issue—Democrats voted nearly in unison for the bill, 25-18, ensuring its passage and ratification. In an interview, Chrissy Pearson, press secretary for Gov. Beverly Perdue, said the governor was expected to sign the bill into law.
Sen. Charles Albertson (D-Duplin), who voted for a previous version of the bill, was the only Democrat to vote against it on Wednesday.
“I don’t think we’ll know the full consequences of this bill, as far as cost,” Albertson said in an interview.
Following the Senate’s original approval, the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) and the N.C. Department of Justice estimated the Racial Justice Act would cost North Carolina between $2.4 million and $6.2 million in the first year, the window of time for current death-row inmates to file a claim under the bill. However, AOC also acknowledged that state trial costs would be “considerably less” in instances when a Racial Justice Act claim results in a non-capital trial that would have proceeded capitally. Meanwhile, the N.C. Indigent Defense Services estimated the bill would ultimately save the state money.
Albertson also suggested that some defendants previously on death row could be paroled as a result of the Racial Justice Act. However, the bill specifies that defendants who can prove race was an underlying factor in the decision to seek or impose the death sentence, will instead be sentenced to, or tried for, life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Rand, who in a procedural move said he “would” vote for the bill, but whose position is officially “not voting,” was not immediately available for comment.
“It ain’t easy standing up to the majority leader,” McKissick said to bill supporters who greeted him on the floor, including Rep. Larry Womble (D-Forsyth) a sponsor on the House side who offered McKissick a handshake. “But it worked out. And we did all right.”
In an interview, McKissick was mum about what transpired in the Democratic caucus, other than to say: “We did a lot of talking, and we also did some soul searching, and I’ll leave it at that.”
“Senator McKissick was very tenacious, because when we began the process today, we did not have the votes,” Sen. Doug Berger a Democrat representing Franklin, Granville, Vance and Warren counties, told the Indy. “He relentlessly worked it, and by the time we got into the private room, the tidal wave went the other way. For the most part, the Democrats came out right on this issue.”
Berger, who said he supports the death penalty, added: “I think most people in the state want to know, when the death penalty is administered, that race didn’t have anything to do with it—and that’s what this law is going to do.”
Before the vote, Phil Berger, the Republican leader, repeated the argument that Democrats who voted for the bill were voting against the death penalty.
“Concurring with the House version of this bill is a vote to say we should not have the death penalty in North Carolina,” Berger said. “It will make it so the imposition of the death penalty in North Carolina will probably not occur any longer, and it will make it so that every case on death row in North Carolina will be reopened, not because of a question of the innocence or the guilt of the person on death row, not because there’s even a procedural question of what occurred in their trial, but simply because of a statistical argument that could be made.”
Womble, the House sponsor, rejected that argument.
“My family believes in the death penalty. My seatmate, Hugh Holliman, the (House) Majority Leader, believes in the death penalty. But he believes in this bill to make sure the death penalty is fair and equitable and objective,” he said in a later interview.
Womble added: “It’s the tough bills that test our character, and this was the right thing to do. Regardless of politics, regardless of what’s sociable or acceptable, right is simply right.”