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NC's Racial Justice Act: Reform or Repeal?

April 6, 2011

RALEIGH, N.C. - Critics of a controversial proposal that backers say would reform the state's Racial Justice Act argue that the real goal of a handful of lawmakers is to repeal it.

Five North Carolina lawmakers selected the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination to introduce a controversial measure that would make major changes to the act, which was passed in 2009 and is being used to review whether race was a factor in the death sentences of 150 state inmates.

Attorney Ken Rose with the Center for Death Penalty Litigation claims the bill's sponsors want to scrap the act, not reform it.

"The Act nullifies the law, the Act repeals the law. It could not be more direct in some of its provisions in saying that the Racial Justice Act is a nullity."

Supporters of the measure say they want to save taxpayers the expense of reviewing the death-penalty sentences. Rose disputes that argument, saying that local judges already have started the orderly review of some cases and that it would cost more to stop that process than to allow it to proceed.

One part of the Racial Justice Act is already complete: a directive that studies be conducted to examine the role of race in death-penalty cases in North Carolina. Rose charges that some lawmakers are now trying to go back on the pledge the state made to follow through on the results of those studies.

"Those studies have been conducted, and what they show is that race is a major factor in selecting who is chosen to be sentenced to die. So, now that we know that, the Legislature is saying, 'Well, um, we don't care.' "

No inmate would be released under the current Racial Justice Act, Rose says, although some could have their death sentences commuted to life in prison without parole.

The measure, House Bill 615, was introduced in the House Judiciary Committee.

Mike Clifford, Public News Service - NC