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Racial Justice Act repeal cleared for Senate approval

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RALEIGH, N.C. -

The North Carolina House voted Wednesday to repeal the remaining parts of the 2009 Racial Justice Act.

The bill passed with a 77-39 vote, sending it to the Senate for final approval. The Senate already passed the bill but has to approve some minor changes added by the House.

Senate Bill 306 repeals what remains of the 2009 Racial Justice Act, which was passed four years ago by Democrats. The act allows a judge to reduce a death sentence to life in prison if race played a major role in the case.

The act was already weakened by Republicans last session.

The state hasn't carried out an execution since 2006 because of various legal appeals.

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.

The bill also 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.

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