A bill that Republicans say is designed to clear the way for executions to resume in North Carolina is headed to Gov. Pat McCrory's desk after receiving final legislative approval Wednesday.
The Senate approved changes made by the House to a bill that repeals the Racial Justice Act, a landmark 2009 law that allows convicted murderers to reduce a death sentence to life in prison if they can prove that race played a major role in their cases. The law had already been weakened last year by Republicans, who successfully pushed to restrict the use of statistics to prove bias and require other forms of evidence.
The bill also protects medical professionals who assist in an execution from disciplinary action, but the provision repealing a major Democratic initiative consumed most of the debate as the measure moved through the legislature.
Republicans argue the 2009 law allows virtually any death-row inmate to contest a conviction on racial grounds, which has led to 152 of 156 felons awaiting execution to appeal. They say that even white convicts can prompt an appeal merely by showing a higher frequency of capital cases in their jurisdictions involve people of their race, and plenty of avenues already exist to legitimately contest a conviction on racial grounds.
The true intent, Republicans say, is to force a de facto moratorium on the death penalty for murderers fairly convicted through jury trials.
"RJA has only been able to be used in cases we know we have a cold-blooded, first-degree murderer who attempts to call the District Attorney a racist and himself the victim," said Sen. Thom Goolsby, R-New Hanover and the bill's lead sponsor.
Republicans have veto-proof majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly.
Democrats argue there's plenty of evidence that those juries are racially biased. They cite a Michigan State University study of North Carolina that found evidence of prosecutors striking black jurors from capital cases at more than twice the rate of others over two decades.
Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, said a majority of the law's original backers support capital punishment but saw a system that doesn't provide adequate justice for all.
"In my mind it's really a sad, shameful day in North Carolina to turn our backs on our commitment to eliminate racial bias from court rulings in capital cases," he said.
McCrory opposed the Racial Justice Act during his 2012 campaign. He called the Racial Justice Act "a lousy bill" at a gubernatorial debate last fall.
"By the way, it's not just African Americans who are using the Racial Justice Act to delay the death penalty, it's everyone ... and that shows the joke that it's become," he said. "And it's just a delay tactic that's costing the taxpayer a lot of money."
Kim Genardo, McCrory's communications director, wouldn't say whether or not he will sign the bill.
"When and if the Racial Justice Act repeal comes our way, the Governor will have ten days to make his decision," she said in an email.