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Racial Justice Act debate in the House today

Posted by Becki Gray at 11:01 AM

The House Judiciary I committee considers Senate Bill 461, NC Racial Justice Act. Chairman Ross calls this "the main event" of today's meeting. Staffers from Speaker Hackney's office are in the audience, monitoring the debate and counting votes.

This controversial bill allows for a challenge to a death penalty decision if that decision was made because race was a factor. Burden of proof is on the defendant and the decision would be made by a judge. The proof is based on statistical data. If successful, the sentence would be changed to life without parole. 

Sen Floyd McKissick D-Durham, sponsor of the bill explains the bill.  Reps Larry Womble, D-Forsyth and Earline Parmon, D-Forsyth are sponsoring the bill in the House. Rep Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford is a co-sponsor.

Rep Skip Stam, R-Wake asks why anyone on death row would not file for this petition and raises concerns about cost to the state. Racial justice has a long history but why not a sexual justice act as more men have been executed than women? He questions the appropriateness of the data used, ie why use data of people on death row rather than those who have been executed. 

Rep Angela Bryant, D-Nash, says we need this because we have racial discrimination in criminal justice and the system needs to be fair.

Rep Annie Mobley, D- Halifax, questions time frames of the bill.  What if someone is in a coma and misses the one year time period to file a petition? They would be represented by someone to protect their interests. Is the judge's decision appealable? Yes, could appeal directly to the NC Supreme Court.

Rep Sara Stevens, R-Surry, asks about overlap with this bill and constitutional protections. This act allows statistical evidence to be used which is different from the constitutional protections.

Rep Womble knows of no one who is opposed to the bill. Rep Stam says the conference of district attorneys is opposed. Rev. Barbour of the NAACP says race is a factor in the death penalty, racial justice is about justice and asks for a unanimous vote.

By a show of hands, the bill passes 7-6. Looks like straight party lines, with Ds voting yes, Rs voting no.  The bill now goes to the House Appropriations.

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