Plan to Allow Racial Bias Claims in Court Stalls

Whitney Woodward, AP, July 14, 2008

A plan to allow defendants facing the death penalty to challenge their sentences because of racial bias is idling, and a Senate vote could open the door for executions to resume.

The N.C. Racial Justice Act would allow defendants to argue that race played a role in their sentence or a prosecutor’s decision to seek the death penalty. In practice, defendants could use summary data to show that judicial system officials have applied the death penalty unevenly among racial groups.

But since the House approved the plan 68-51 in May, the bill has sat dormant in the Senate. Opponents say the plan could tie the hands of district attorneys by reducing their ability to prosecute cases based on their specific merits.

With lawmakers seeking to adjourn this week, it’s unclear if the proposal will be called for a vote.

If it is, opponent Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said he’ll push to add a provision to the bill which would allow the state to resume executions.

The state Medical Board in January 2007 threatened to punish doctors who participate in executions—effectively triggering a moratorium on the death penalty because state law requires a physician to be present.

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NAACP state president Rev. William Barber, who supports the measure, denounced any attempts to use the bill as a vehicle for resuming executions, saying such changes would amount to “legislative games.”

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