In 2009, the NC General Assembly passed S.L. 2009-464, also known as the Racial Justice Act. The law provided that in capital cases defendants could use statistical evidence to prove racial bias in their case. If racial discrimination was ruled a factor in the defendant’s sentencing, the defendant’s sentence was then reduced to life without parole.
After almost all death row inmates, even Caucasians, filed a claim under the Racial Justice Act, the legislature readdressed the law in 2010. Death penalty supporters saw a need to end the de facto moratorium the law had placed on the death penalty and weaken the use of statistical evidence. This led to the development of SB 9, “No Discriminatory Purpose in Death Penalty,” which narrowed the original law to protect against discriminatory purpose in death penalty sentencing and eliminated the use of statistical evidence in such cases. SB 9 garnered enough votes to pass the legislature, but not enough to sustain Governor Purdue’s much-expected veto.
The debate did not end here, though. The Racial Justice Act was widely disliked by prosecutors and district attorneys because of the way it bogged down the courts and the complicated nature of prosecution the law required. So in March 2011, SB 416, “Amend Death Penalty Procedures,” was filed and made its way through both houses. This new revision to the Racial Justice Act made several noted changes to the existing law. Statistical evidence alone could not be the only evidence used to prove racial bias in a defendant’s case, and this statistical evidence would also be made more relevant to the actual case: only evidence from the county or prosecutorial district of the case would be allowed, and any numerical evidence must be from an approximate 12-year window. SB 416 also made a new provision declaring that the race of the victim was not to be considered in determining racial bias.
With these new provisions, the legislature mustered up enough bipartisan support to withstand a veto from Gov. Bev Perdue – which is exactly what happened. Near the end of the session the bill became law, and will now provide much-needed reform to death penalty litigation in the state. North Carolina’s death penalty cases can now center more heavily on factual evidence of a case rather than impersonal statistical evidence. This new law ensures that defendants are subject to a fair trial while preventing abuse of our judicial system.