The state Senate passed the N.C. Racial Justice Act by a 25-18 margin Thursday and Gov. Bev Perdue is expected to sign the bill into law. The House passed the bill last month.
Studies have concluded that ethnic minorities–especially blacks–and the poor are more likely to be sentenced to death than whites. North Carolina has 163 inmates on death row, including 98 African Americans. Capital punishment opponents point to a 2001 study by researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill that found that the odds of a murder defendant condemned to death in North Carolina increase if the victim is white. Supporters of the bill contend its passage is the first step in closing racial disparities in how capital punishment is applied in the South, where the number of condemned inmates tends to be higher.
Kentucky is the only other state with such a law that allows death penalty challenges based on ethnicity.
“This is a great spiritual victory for North Carolina, the South, and our whole country,” said Stephen Dear, executive director of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty. “We have passed through the horrors of Jim Crow, through the racial politics of Jesse Helms, and now we have come to acknowledge that racial bias infects our courts over one of the greatest powers citizens give to government, the power to take human life.”
Under the bill, death row inmates and future capital case defendants could use statistics from death-penalty cases to show racial disparities in how death sentences are applied. If a judge finds the application is racially biased, the death sentence can be converted to life in prison without parole. District attorneys opposed the bill, contending race is rarely used to determine how capital punishment is meted out.