After heated debate, a sharply divided North Carolina House on Thursday voted along party lines to repeal the Racial Justice Act, a law that allows death row inmates to challenge their sentences on the basis that race had played a role in determining their punishment. However, the move fell short by a single vote in the Republican-dominated Senate.
North Carolina was in 2009 only the second state after Kentucky to have passed such a law. In a state where a black man is more than twice as likely to be sentenced to death if at least one of the victims is white, according to a Michigan State University study, some lawmakers consider the Racial Justice Act to be landmark legislation.
But Republican opponents say the law is unenforceable and needlessly ties up the court system. After they took a majority in the legislature last year, Republicans promised to repeal or amend the act, charging that it was a disingenuous attempt to phase out the death penalty in the state.
The controversial repeal bill brought about a House debate that was at turns academic and passionate, in which defenders of the act, most of them Democrats, urged others to “do justice” and to recall the historical legacy of racism in North Carolina.
Rep. Rick Glazier (D) pointed to anecdotal evidence of discrimination reported in the distant past such as jurors’ comments to “let’s kill the nigger” or “blacks value life less.”
“Many of us in this room know that being black is different,” he concluded. “Nothing in life is settled unless settled right. Race remains this nation’s open wound whose ragged edges long to heal, but cannot.”
In turn, Rep. Paul Stam (R) rose to speak with a rebuttal that alluded to the Bible and to ancient Roman law. After highlighting the Western tradition of individual punishment, he disputed the broader use of statistics to lessen an individual death sentence.
“Stop using race as a reason not to execute cold-blooded murderers,” said Stam. “Race is a red herring.”
The vast majority of North Carolina’s death row inmates, at least 150 out of 158, have already filed claims under the Racial Justice Act. Some of those, Republican lawmakers point out, are white men who committed crimes against other white men.
Despite the impassioned rhetoric surrounding it, the Racial Justice Act is just one part of the wider debate taking place over the death penalty in the state.
In the last several years, three North Carolina death row inmates have been released after ultimately being found innocent, and since 1973, there have been eight such cases in the state.
Legislators remain divided over the question of whether the death penalty is inherently flawed as a result of racial bias and whether the Racial Justice Act is an effective way to address that.
North Carolina has had a de facto moratorium on its death penalty since August 2006, when the N.C. Medical Board barred doctors from being “present” for lethal injections. Though the N.C. Supreme Court has struck down the rule, executions are still postponed through the appeals process.
The manner in which state Republicans quickly pushed a repeal bill to the legislature was called a “gimmick” by an editorial by the Fayettville Observer.
“As far as we know, though, no one anticipated the sheer cynicism and high-handedness of the law’s more ideological enemies. The way the opposition set the stage, there might be little debate, honest or otherwise, because their purpose is to neuter the law by gimmick.”
Having failed in the Senate, the legislature won’t revisit a repeal measure before next year.