North Carolina to Revisit Death Penalty Issue

By: - January 3, 2012 12:00 am

The North Carolina General Assembly convenes tomorrow (Jan. 4) to decide whether to override Governor Bev Perdue’s veto of its repeal of the state’s controversial Racial Justice Act.

Passed in 2009, the legislation allows death row inmates to challenge their death sentences with evidence showing that racial bias played a role in the decision to seek capital punishment. The law gives convicts an opportunity to try and prove that they were discriminated against for reasons of race; or that discrimination existed for crimes committed against one race; or that racial bias was present in the jury selection process. If a convict’s appeal is successful in state court, the sentence can be reduced to life without parole.

The most active opponents of the act, the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys, waged an aggressive lobbying effort against it, and convinced the Republican-controlled legislature to repeal the act last November, calling it a de facto moratorium on the death penalty that would clog the courts with costly litigation. So far, more than 100 claims have been filed under the law, but no case has been exhaustively litigated.

In protest against Perdue’s veto, Johnston County District Attorney Susan Doyle, president of the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys, wrote to state senators questioning Perdue’s commitment to the death penalty in general. “I challenge you (to) see RJA for what it really is,” she wrote, “not a search to eliminate bias, but a backdoor deal to end the death penalty in North Carolina.”

Perdue argues that the act simply makes the process fairer and is not making any statement on the death penalty itself. “I am — and always will be — a strong supporter of the death penalty,” Perdue wrote in her veto message, however, because the death penalty is the ultimate punishment, it is essential that it… not be infected with prejudice based on race.”

Overriding a governor’s veto requires a three-fifths majority in both houses of the Legislature. While eight of Perdue’s vetoes have been overridden during her three years in office, there appears to be only a modest chance of that this time, according to the Charlotte News and Observer . Five House Democrats would have to vote for the override, and that number may be difficult to reach. The Senate appears to have a three-fifths majority for repeal, and Senate president pro tempore Phil Berger has said an override would pass the Senate.

Doug Berman, a law professor at Ohio State University and an expert on sentencing law, argues that “the controversy in North Carolina might ensure that we don’t see racial justice acts in other states.” North Carolina and Kentucky are the only states that have passed a racial justice act.

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