A letter signed by nearly all of the state's district attorneys to the leaders of the N.C. Senate, asking for a quick repeal of the Racial Justice Act, has state Rep. Larry Womble saying that once again the purpose of the law has been misunderstood.
Womble, D-Forsyth, one of the sponsors of the act, said that assertions in the letter were untrue because appeals from death row inmates under the law haven't advanced through the court system.
"Prisoners will not get out of jail," said Womble said. "This isn't a get-out-of-jail bill."
The Racial Justice Act, enacted in 2009, allows death row prisoners to challenge their sentences on the grounds of racial bias.
"If you do not address this issue quickly, the criminal justice system will be saddled with litigation that will crush an already underfunded and overburdened system," wrote Susan Doyle, the Johnston County district attorney and president of the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys.
The letter, sent this week, was addressed to Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham. It also went to all senators, said Peg Dorer, executive director of the conference. District attorneys from all 100 counties will present a resolution on the issue, Dorer said.
Womble said that the district attorneys should be looking for the truth and fairness in capital murder cases rather than fighting the Racial Justice Act.
"It's not about the death penalty," Womble said. "It's about fairness in the criminal justice system. Rather than fighting to repeal the law, they should be trying to uphold the law."
The N.C. Academy of Trial Lawyers and some relatives of murder victims support the law, Womble said.
"The DAs should be fair about this and don't kill anyone unfairly," he said.
In Forsyth County, seven whites and six blacks convicted of murder and sentenced to death have filed for relief under the law, said Jim O'Neill, the Forsyth County district attorney.
"The problem with the RJA is that none of these murderers in Forsyth are required to prove that race was a factor in their particular case," O'Neill said. "Instead, as currently constructed, if the defense can show race was a factor in a death penalty verdict in some faraway county other than Forsyth, then all of these murderers on death row coming out of Forsyth County would have their case reduced to life in prison."
O'Neill said that if the law is not amended, every death row inmate statewide convicted before Oct. 1, 1994, would be eligible.
There are more than 100 cases of these statewide.
"No one should be sentenced to death, black or white, simply because of the color of their skin," O'Neill said. "The law must be amended so that in order to prevail on an RJA claim, a defendant would have to show that race was a factor in his (or) her particular case."
The Racial Justice Act allows death row inmates and defendants facing the death penalty to use statistics and other evidence to show that racial bias played a significant role in either their sentences or in the prosecutors' decisions to pursue the death penalty. The law says an inmate's sentence is reduced to life in prison without the possibility of parole if the claim is successful.
A study by two law professors at Michigan State University found a defendant in North Carolina is 2.6 times more likely to be sentenced to death if at least one of the victims was white. The study also showed that of the 159 people on death row in the state at the time of the study, 31 had all-white juries and 38 had only one person of color on the jury.
The legislature is scheduled to reconvene Nov. 27 to work up to three days on several possible items. Its adjournment motion allows lawmakers to consider bills during that period that are awaiting a concurrence vote, which means senators could vote on the repeal of the Racial Justice Act.
The repeal, contained in Senate Bill 9, went to the state House as a bill to create penalties for synthetic marijuana. House Republicans stripped that language and changed the bill's language to repeal the 2-year-old Racial Justice Act. That means state senators have never discussed the proposed repeal, either in committee or on the floor.
That angers Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, one of the architects of the Racial Justice Act.
"The House is attempting a procedural maneuver to eliminate public debate," McKissick said. "I think it's extremely unfortunate for a very significant piece of legislation."
Berger said he doesn't know whether the Senate will consider the repeal this month.