NC Senate set to vote on Racial Justice Act repeal - WSLS 10 NBC in Roanoke/Lynchburg Va

NC Senate set to vote on Racial Justice Act repeal

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Supporters of the Racial Justice Act speak at the General Assembly. (Terrence Evans, WNCN) Supporters of the Racial Justice Act speak at the General Assembly. (Terrence Evans, WNCN)
RALEIGH, N.C. -

Opponents of a measure to repeal North Carolina's law that created another method to challenge racial bias in death row cases pleaded with House members Wednesday to preserve the Racial Justice Act and prevent the acceleration of capital punishment.
    
The measure, which passed the Senate last month, got a hearing before a House judiciary committee, where members heard from attorneys, a physician and family members of murder victims on opposite sides of the issue. No vote was taken but the bill would return at a later date, the committee co-chairman said.
    
In addition to repealing what's left of the 2009 Racial Justice Act - already weakened by Republicans last year - the bill lays out a series of mostly technical changes for the state to carry out capital punishment. They are designed to restart executions in the state, one of which hasn't been carried out since 2006 due to various legal appeals.
    
Jonathan Megerian, a Randolph County attorney who represented a death row prisoner whose execution was stayed and who later was granted a new trial, warned legislators about encouraging a fatal mistake.
    
"There is no need to rush these executions," Megerian said. "The faster you make this process ... we're going to have innocent people die and we're not going to know it."
    
The bill makes clear that doctors, nurses and pharmacists can't be disciplined by their licensing boards if they provide assistance in an execution, such as the administering of lethal drugs to a death row prisoner. It affirms a state Supreme Court ruling that found doctors are required to oversee executions, after a state Medical Board rule barred doctors from doing so.
    
Bill sponsor Sen. Thom Goolsby, R-New Hanover, said murder victims and their friends and relatives deserve to see carried out the justice that was recommended by a jury.
    
"Never forget those victims, long dead in their graves, and their families that continue to suffer that continue to ask you to provide them with justice," Goolsby told House members.
    
The most significant change would be the repeal of the Racial Justice Act, which was originally pushed into law by Democrats. The 2009 law directed judges to reduce a death row inmate's sentence to life in prison if they found a significant factor in a convicted murderer receiving a death sentence or in the composition of jurors hearing a case.
    
Many prosecutors complained about the law, which they said clogged up the court system because nearly all the 150-plus inmates on North Carolina's death row filed for reviews under the law, including white defendants convicted of killing white victims.
    
Republicans changed the law in 2012 over then-Gov. Beverly Perdue's veto by making clear statistics alone can't prove race was a significant factor. Many district attorneys still want the complete repeal, saying the litigation is adding years to already lengthy appeals for death row prisoners.
    
Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O'Neill pointed to the case of Timothy Hartford, who filed a motion under the Racial Justice Act for his death sentence in the fatal shooting of Anne Magness. She and her husband were shot while they delivered lunch to a shut-in at a Forsyth County home in 2008. Hartford and Magness are both white.
    
"There's no more compelling example of why we need to support Sen. Goolsby's bill," O'Neill said.
    
Racial Justice Act supporters say the law is working to root out racial discrimination among prosecutors in jury selections in capital cases.
    
A Cumberland County judge has reduced to life in prison the death sentences of four convicted murderers who filed motions under the law. The judge ruled on three of them in December, after the Racial Justice Act was pulled back
    
"Racial discrimination is an absolute cancer on the capital punishment process and like any cancer you can either ignore it or deal with it," Jay Ferguson, a Durham attorney who participated in the Cumberland County cases.

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