In just the past week, Raleigh’s conservative lawmakers have pushed forward on three of perhaps their most tendentious priorities, working to add restrictions to abortion, and rallying just yesterday to gain support to amend the state’s constitution to outlaw same-sex marriage. On Wednesday, House Majority Leader Paul “Skip” Stam and Republican colleagues honed in on another intense and emotive issue, one with life or death consequences: allegations of racism in the courtroom.
A bloc of conservative lawmakers are vying to erase the 2009 Racial Justice Act, a law that allows death row inmates to potentially avoid execution if a judge finds their cases were influenced by racial bias. The law has been heralded as one of the country’s most progressive criminal justice reforms in decades. But since its passage, many of the state’s conservative politicians have vowed to dismantle it.
Stam filed a bill in February to obliterate the law, and on Wednesday he himself presided over the discussion on it. He stood at the front of a crowded room, before rows of television cameras, recorders and microphones. The nearly 90 minutes of public comments were tense and sometimes awkward, one district attorney even being interrupted by an awkward outburst of sarcastic laughter. The divisions haven’t moved since the law was passed two years ago. Death penalty opponents, clergy and members of the N.C. Legislative Black Caucus urged the state to redress potential racial bias could have determined whether a convict is put to death.
“We know that if you’re African American in this state, and the victim is white, you’re two and a half times as likely to get the death penalty,” said Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, who was a primary sponsor of the Racial Justice Act in 2009. He cited a study by Michigan State University researchers who reviewed the 173 death penalty cases in North Carolina from 1990 to 2010. “We know that if you’re African American or a person of color and you’re being considered to be a part of a jury that it’s three times as likely that you’re going to be eliminated as a juror. Unfortunately, in this society, we’ve not reached the point where we are color-blind. … Until we get there, we don’t need to be considering repealing the Racial Justice Act.”
On the other side, several district attorneys from around the state said they would not support yet another avenue of appeal for convicted murderers at the taxpayers’ cost. District Attorney Seth Edwards, who represents five counties on the coast, argued the statistical evidence of racial bias is insufficient, and he was personally offended by any allegation that district attorneys consider race any case.
“Ladies and gentleman, when a case in this state is declared capital,” Edwards said, “prosecutors do not see color.”
A third of the audience chuckled. Stam tapped his gavel: “Order, please.”
Edwards continued, describing the Washington County murder of Charles King. He described the case, as though persuading a jury: “Ladies and gentlemen, … the defendant took that clear roll of packing tape and completely wrapped his entire head, covering his mouth and nose until he suffocated and died.” Edwards then opened a black portfolio and produced an 8-inch by 10-inch photo of King’s from when his body was discovered days after his death. He held it above his head and turned slowly so the audience could see.
A few minutes later, Henderson Hill, a Charlotte attorney, took the podium.
“Let’s not cloud the issue with bad pictures. Every homicide case has bad pictures,” said Hill, who 15 years ago helped found the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, a nonprofit that represents capital defendants who can’t afford lawyers. “This bill is not about guilt or innocence. It’s about whether the system is legitimate.”
The subcommittee (House Judiciary Subcommittee B) didn’t vote on the matter, but the conservative cause against the Racial Justice Act did gain ground in recent days. At the start of Wednesday’s meeting, several Democrats on the subcommittee were surprised to learn that after most legislative offices had cleared for the weekend last Friday, a Senate bill previously addressing synthetic marijuana had been gutted. Its text had been completely replaced with a nearly verbatim edition of Stam’s anti-Racial Justice Act bill, and then it was re-filed. Stam then introduced the bill into his subcommittee Wednesday for discussion, to the displeasure of Rep. H.M. “Mickey” Michaux of Durham and other House Democrats.
The strategy—apparently within the rules—allows proponents of the Racial Justice Act repeal to bypass part of the law-making process. Michaux said SB 9 will now travel through the House for a vote, and then be passed back to the Senate for a vote without requiring any further discussion by Senators.
The bill was misrepresented on the agenda for Wednesday’s meeting still as an act to outlaw synthetic marijuana, prompting Michaux to lodge a formal complaint.
Michaux, McKissick and other members of the state’s Legislative Black Caucus gathered at a press conference after the meeting. Two years ago, the same group was celebrating progress, only to gather again to face the likelihood that the progress will be erased.
“I am not proud to be part of this assembly today, with those types of things happening in our state,” said Rep. Earline Parmon, a Democrat from Forsyth County.