Controversy Surrounds N.C. 'Racial Justice Act'

Lawmakers in North Carolina have passed a bill that would repeal the state's "Racial Justice Act." That act allows death row inmates to use statistical evidence of racial bias to challenge their sentences. But since the state passed the measure in 2009, all but three of North Carolina's death row inmates have filed appeals. Now some lawmakers say it's time to revamp the law.

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Two years ago, North Carolina passed a groundbreaking law. The Racial Justice Act allows death row inmates to appeal their sentences if statistics show their cases were subject to racial bias. Since then, inmates have brought a rash of petitions. Some state lawmakers say those appeals are frivolous, and they've passed a measure that would repeal the law.

From North Carolina Public Radio, Jessica Jones reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF COOKING UTENSILS)

JESSICA JONES, BYLINE: Jude Siciliano is a Catholic priest who cooks several times a week for the clergymen he lives with. Tonight, he's testing a new recipe unlike the Italian dishes he grew up with - a vegetarian chili with red beans, corn and carrots.

THE REV. JUDE SICILIANO: It's a bit crunchy. That's good if you like the vegetables a little crunchy. It's got good flavor.

JONES: Besides cooking, Siciliano's other longtime passion is ministering to prisoners on death row. He's visited and exchanged letters with North Carolina inmates for years. As he stirs the bubbling pot, Siciliano jokes that he understands what lawmakers are thinking.

SICILIANO: Really, let's get it on with and forget about the appeals. You know, we might catch a few innocent people in it, but you know, there are a lot of guilty people so let's just push them along. Yeah, we don't want to clog up the system. Really?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SICILIANO: Really?

JONES: Siciliano helped campaign to get the Racial Justice Act passed two years ago. Under the law, judges can commute the sentences of death row inmates to life in prison, if racial bias was a factor in their cases. Studies show black inmates are more likely than whites to receive a death sentence in North Carolina.

But some lawyers argue there are loopholes in the law.Susan Doyle heads the state's Conference of District Attorneys.

SUSAN DOYLE: We are fearful that based on case law, approximately 119 current death row inmates may immediately be eligible for parole under the Racial Justice Act as currently written.

JONES: All but five of North Carolina's 158 death row inmates, both black and white, have sought hearings under the law. District attorneys intensified their campaign against it after the first appeal was scheduled for January. They tried to have the African-American judge overseeing the case removed. That failed, so they approached lawmakers, including Republican Senator Thom Goolsby.

SEN. THOM GOOLSBY: The application of the Racial Justice Act has turned out to have very little to do with race or justice. For murderers on death row, regardless of race, it can be seen as a desperate, last-ditch attempt to snag either a get-out-of-jail-free card, or at least a reduction from the death penalty.

JONES: But proponents of the Racial Justice Act say it's an important safeguard in a state where four death row inmates have been exonerated in recent years. This week, in the state legislature, attorneys, families of murder victims, and even former inmates came to Raleigh to testify before lawmakers.

One of them was Darryl Hunt, who spent 19 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.

DARRYL HUNT: I was one vote away from the death penalty - one. And I had 11 whites and one black on my jury. And if you think that race did not play a factor in my case and me being arrested, charged and convicted, then you're not living here in North Carolina.

JONES: Lawmakers have sent the repeal measure to Governor Beverly Perdue. She hasn't said what she plans to do.

For NPR News, I'm Jessica Jones in Durham, North Carolina.

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