BLACK VOICES
11/29/2011 02:14 pm ET | Updated Nov 29, 2011

N.C. Racial Justice Act Revised After State Senate Vote

North Carolina Governor Bev Purdue is a signature away from permanently changing the state's Racial Justice Act.

On Nov. 28, the state Senate voted to revise the law, which allows reviews to determine if race played a role in a death row inmate's sentence, Newsobserver.com reports. But while supporters say it is a "modification" to the original law, critics say it is an "utter and total repeal."

The law was originally passed in 2009, when the North Carolina Legislature was controlled by Democrats. But after Republicans gained the majority of both houses in November 2010, 43 of the 44 elected district attorneys sent a letter to Senate leader Phil Berger asking for the law to be repealed.

Supporters of the original law, which allowed inmates with successful appeals to have their sentences commuted to life without parole, draw on the results of a Michigan State University study. The research found that defendants who killed a white person in North Carolina were 2.6 times more likely to be sentenced to death than when victims were black, and that juries were predominantly white.

But House Majority Leader Paul Stam said using general statistics to make decisions on individual cases is wrong.

"Justice is personal, it's not collective," Stam said during the legislative committee meeting on Nov. 28. "We don't punish people because they're members of a group, we don't exonerate them because they're members of a group."

Prior to voting, the Senate listened to testimony from district attorneys and families of murder victims, both of whom supported and opposed the original law.

"If there is a problem with race in our justice system," Tom Fewel, father of a murder victim, told the Senate. "I don't understand why we don't want to figure that out."

A wrongly convicted man also spoke out against a repeal of the law. Darryl Hunt, who spent 20 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit, said he narrowly missed a death sentence by one juror's vote. Hunt, who is black, said his jury consisted of 11 white members and one black member.

"Race continues to play a factor in our system," said Hunt. "All we're asking for is justice and fairness in the system, where you won't be sentenced to death based upon the color of your skin."

But supporters of the repeal said that, in its original state, the law was too ambiguous and broad. According to local North Carolina station WRAL, all but three of the 157 inmates on death row have filed appeals under the law, and nearly one third of them are white inmates who killed white victims.

"We are fearful that these death row inmates will be potentially released," Johnston County District Attorney Susan Doyle said.

Now that the House and Senate have approved revisions to the law, Governor Purdue has 30 days to decide whether she'll veto it.

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