White, Cook split

Published 12:31 am Friday, January 6, 2012

Delegation divided on Racial Justice Act

Rep. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, was champing at the bit to overturn Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue’s veto of legislation she said would result in the repeal of the Racial Justice Act.

Though the GOP-led Legislature failed to turn back the veto, “We will pass that puppy, one way or another,” Cook vowed, adding the House is likely to take up the issue again.

The Racial Justice Act allows North Carolina’s death-row inmates to use statistics demonstrating that racial bias figured into their sentences. Under the act, an inmate could have his or her sentence reduced from death to life without parole, provided an attorney can meet the tests prescribed in the new law.

The Republican-led Senate voted 31-19 Wednesday to override Perdue’s veto.

The GOP-dominated House lacked the necessary votes to push the override through.

Sen. Stan White, D-Dare, voted against the override.

“I voted the same way I voted in the original bill when it came up,” White said. “I’d hate to think that somebody was put to death when there was reasonable doubt.”

He continued, saying, “There is no chance under the bill that anybody could ever be released if they were convicted of the crime.”

He asserted that new evidence — specifically DNA evidence — could set a person free, but the Racial Justice Act wasn’t designed to put murderers on the street.

Asked to explain his objections to the Racial Justice Act, Cook nodded first to the monetary cost, then to other costs he fears the measure could bring.

“It’s going to cost the state millions of dollars; it’s going to put, on the street, killers,” he said. “It’s one of the most asinine bills I’ve ever seen. It’s important to see that our judicial system works properly, but this bill goes way beyond that. This bill is an attempt by those who are against capital punishment to end capital punishment.”

The North Carolina NAACP sees bias as key to the issue at hand.

“Those who vote to override the Governor’s veto of the Racial Justice Act Repeal Bill are telling all North Carolinians that they do not care if racism plays a role in the court’s use of the death penalty,” the NAACP said in a statement. “They do not care that, according to a study by Michigan State University, defendants with White victims are 2.6 times more likely to receive the death penalty than if their victims are African-American in North Carolina.”

In her Dec. 14, 2011, veto message, Perdue said, “I am — and always will be — a strong supporter of the death penalty.”

She continued by writing that “because the death penalty is the ultimate punishment, it is essential that it be carried out fairly and that the process not be infected with prejudice based on race, gender, poverty or any other factor. I signed the Racial Justice Act into law two years ago because it ensured that racial prejudice would not taint the application of the death penalty.”

In a letter to the editor of the Washington Daily News, Seth Edwards, district attorney in the 2nd Prosecutorial District, writes that the amendment in Senate Bill 9, which Perdue vetoed, “still assures that a person’s race shall not be a basis for seeking or implementing the death penalty; however, the amendment no longer allows the defendant to use statistics from another part of NC in an effort to overturn his death sentence, even when the defendant is unable to show racial discrimination in his particular case.”

“Prosecutors strongly support the recent amendment, mainly because the original RJA has resulted in unintended consequences,” Edwards continued. “For example, right here in Beaufort County Terry Ball has filed a claim under the RJA, seeking to convert his death sentence to life without parole. Terry Ball is white, and his victim was white. A Beaufort County jury convicted Ball of First Degree Murder in 1994, and that same jury determined that due to aggravating factors, Ball deserved the ultimate punishment of death. Now under the RJA, Ball is asserting he deserves a life sentence instead of death due to racial discrimination. I hope you are asking yourself, ‘How can a white man who brutally killed a white woman claim racial discrimination?’ The simple answer — because he can under the current RJA. I do not believe the supporters of the original RJA expected this type of result.”

White indicated the Senate debate was emotional at times. He believed some Republicans’ claims they didn’t want to be accused of racial bias.

“I believe that there’s a lot of them that wouldn’t want it on their conscience that somebody was put to death when they didn’t have the opportunity to exercise every right,” the senator commented.