By Ann Blythe, The News & Observer
The goal is to persuade the representatives to sustain the governor’s Thursday veto of the legislature’s overhaul of the Racial Justice Act. The Senate is expected to vote to override on Monday. The House will follow that day or Tuesday with a vote in which at least four of the five conservative Democrats will have to join Republicans, if all members are present, to give them the three-fifths majority to override.
Within hours of the governor’s veto, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, a civil rights advocacy firm based in Durham with the backing of other state and national civil rights organizations, delivered a petition with 5,000 signatures to policymakers. Their focus was strongly on Rep. William D. Brisson, a Bladen County Democrat; Rep. James W. Crawford Jr., a Granville County Democrat; Rep. Dewey L. Hill, a Brunswick County Democrat; Rep. Bill Owens, a Camden County Democrat, and Rep. Timothy L. Spear, a Washington County Democrat.
The North Carolina Council of Churches, an organization long committed to ending the death penalty and an advocate of a moratorium on executions, issued a directive on Friday urging people to contact Brisson, Hill and Owens. Owens has said he would vote to override, and Crawford would not say.
The Racial Justice Act, adopted in 2009, allows death row inmates to use statistics when challenging their sentences using racial bias claims. If racial bias played a role in their case, a judge can convert a death sentence to life in prison without opportunity for parole.
In April, a Cumberland County judge found that racial bias played a part in the case of Marcus Robinson, the first of more than 150 death row inmates seeking relief under the Racial Justice Act.
Then the legislature made sweeping changes to the law this summer, trying to limit the use of statistics.
Words for the swing votes
In their appeal to the five House Democrats to sustain the governor’s veto, petitioners are urging the lawmakers to consider the findings Cumberland County Judge Gregory Weeks made in the first Racial Justice Act case.
The judge found evidence that the jury selection process in capital cases, both statewide and locally, had systematically excluded blacks.
“The recent court findings of systematic intentional exclusion of people of color from capital juries, an action that taints and undermines equal justice, were the result of a measured and well-litigated adversarial process,” Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition, said in a statement. “They are fully supported by reliable evidence and deserve respect. In light of these findings, we are particularly troubled by recent efforts to repeal or ‘amend’ the Racial Justice Act, which will prohibit a judge from ever examining similar evidence in future cases. It is deeply wrong to turn a blind eye to the truth of how our criminal justice system has operated in the past.”
The Rev. William Barber, head of the state chapter of the NAACP, also had strong words for the five House Democrats.
“For a Southern legislature to do what they are doing in the face of proven racial disparities is wrong reprehensible and contrary to the fundamental American principle of equal justice,” Barber said.
Barber further noted that all black members of the legislative caucus were against gutting the Racial Justice Act while all those who supported the overhaul were white.
Executions on hold
There has not been an execution in this state since 2006 when a series of lawsuits filed on behalf of death row inmates created a de facto moratorium.
Then all but a few of the 156 death row inmates sought relief from their sentences under the Racial Justice Act.
Though it might have been the intent of the legislature to resume executions with this new bill changing the Racial Justice Act, opponents of capital punishment say the practical effect could be just the opposite.
“It will just add another layer of lawsuits,” projected Ken Rose, a lawyer at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation based in Durham.
Rose said death row inmates who sought relief under the 2009 law likely would challenge any changes that prohibited them from having hearings in their cases.
Despite legislative attempts to address that issue by saying the law did not apply to the case of Robinson – the death row inmate whose case was heard first – the legal challenges that might come from other death row inmates excluded from similar hearings could keep the de facto moratorium in place for years as those judges consider the cases.
But House Majority Leader Paul “Skip” Stam, a Republican from Apex and key author of the current bill, said Saturday that changing the Racial Justice Act would end up reducing litigation by a few years. He said the Racial Justice Act added about six years to a process that typically lasts right up until execution.
Peg Dorer, executive director of the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys, agreed.
“Extensive litigation is the name of the game with death penalty opponents,” she said in an email Saturday. “When they know that a majority of citizens in North Carolina support a death penalty, their only option is to continue to stall, tangling the system up with litigation.”
Staff writer Craig Jarvis contributed.