The N.C. Conference of District Attorneys, which has opposed the 2009 Racial Justice Act since it was enacted, pushed conservative lawmakers this week to renew their attempt to repeal the milestone legislation.
On Monday, the prosecutors' group sent a letter to Sen. Phil Berger, a Republican from Eden, pushing for the General Assembly to repeal the law when it meets in a special session beginning Sunday, Nov. 27.
Led by House Majority Leader Paul "Skip" Stam, a Republican from Apex, conservative legislators have been working since the beginning of the year to repeal the law, which allows convicts on death row to appeal their sentences on the grounds their verdict or death sentence was influenced by racial bias. A bill to repeal the two-year-old law was assigned to a Senate committee in July.
Many expected efforts to repeal the law when the legislature starts its next regular session in May. But prosecutors had a clear motive in pushing the repeal efforts to the upcoming special session, which was scheduled without much warning, said Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Democrat from Durham and one of the original backers of the Racial Justice Act.
At a press conference Thursday, McKissick said prosecutors are threatened by the potential outcome in a Cumberland County Racial Justice Act hearing on Jan. 30, the first RJA appeal to move this far through the courts since the law was passed.
Cumberland County prosecutors tried unsuccessfully to remove Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks from presiding over the evidentiary hearing, originally scheduled for this week, saying they would be calling Weeks as a witness in the case, and he therefore couldn't preside over it. Critics say the prosecutors were trying to remove Weeks from the case because he is black.
The efforts to remove Weeks have been denied. Prosecutors did win an extension to the end of January, but the case will move forward and changing the law is their next tactic, McKissick said.
"The reason they’re doing it is out of fear and concern of the outcome of pending litigation," McKissick said at the press conference. "They’re afraid of what Judge Weeks is going to do. They were unable to disqualify Judge Weeks. He’s hearing a case that’s before the court. To stop him from hearing it, they want to change the law, and they want to change it right away … It’s just that simple."
The Rev. William Barber of the N.C. NAACP, Rep. Rick Glazier and Senate Democratic Leader Martin Nesbitt of Asheville also spoke at the press conference. The proponents cited academic studies publicized earlier this year that show racial bias in the selection of juries in North Carolina death penalty cases over the past 20 years.
The state House and Senate are currently scheduled to convene at 8 p.m.