Groups push Gov. Perdue on death sentence bill
Families of murder victims urge governor to veto repeal of Racial Justice Act
RALEIGH — An Asheville woman whose father was murdered will be in a group meeting with Gov. Bev Perdue today to urge her to veto a bill that guts a law allowing evidence of racism to be used in overturning death sentences.
The 2009 Racial Justice Act permits death row inmates and defendants facing the death penalty to use statistics and other evidence to show that racial bias played a significant role in either their sentence or in a prosecutor’s decision to pursue the death penalty.
The Republican-controlled General Assembly voted this year to repeal the law. Perdue, who has fewer than three weeks to decide whether to veto the measure, has invited critics and proponents to present their cases as she weighs her decision.
A group of family members of murder victims says it is meeting with the governor in response to lobbying by the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys in favor of repeal.
The group also plans to hold a news conference in Raleigh following its meeting with Perdue.
Asheville resident Megan Smith’s father and stepmother were killed in Pennsylvania in 2001 by her adopted stepbrother and one of his friends, who is now on death row. She planned to attend the meeting.
“The death penalty doesn’t feel like it’s really there for all victims’ families when the system is so economically and racially skewed,” she said. “As a white person, I can’t imagine what it might feel like to be handed a death sentence by an all or mostly black jury.
“Yet, North Carolina has allowed that to happen in reverse, and repealing the Racial Justice Act is sending the message that we don’t care about racial inconsistencies.”
The law says an inmate’s sentence is reduced to life in prison without the possibility of parole if the claim is successful, but prosecutors say some death row inmates could be released because they were sentenced before 1994 when the state allowed life sentences with the possibility of parole after 20 years.
“We’re fearful that, based on case law, 119 death row inmates would be eligible for parole,” Susan Doyle, president of the Conference of District Attorneys, told lawmakers before the Senate voted to send the measure to Perdue.
A study by two law professors at Michigan State University found a defendant in North Carolina is 2.6 times more likely to be sentenced to death if at least one of the victims was white. The study also showed that of the 159 people on death row in the state at the time of the study, 31 had all-white juries and 38 had only one person of color on the jury.
Of the 163 inmates on the North Carolina’s death row, more than half are black. Only 20 percent of the state’s population is African-American.
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