NC Senate panel backs execution rule changes

Mar. 26, 2013 @ 09:37 PM

A Senate judiciary panel on Tuesday approved a Republican effort members say will kick-start the resumption of North Carolina executions after more than six years and help end a method for death-row prisoners seeking life sentences on racial bias claims.

The committee voted along party lines in favor of the measure that its chief sponsor says will ensure justice is carried out for those convicted of heinous murders. The full Senate could hear the bill later this week.

No one on North Carolina's death row has been executed since 2006 because of various legal appeals.

Capital punishment "is the law of the land, and it needs to be carried out until or unless the people of North Carolina decide they do not want a death penalty," Sen. Thom Goolsby, R-New Hanover, told the panel. "We have a number of families that continue to suffer. Their dead continue to rot in their graves, and they are waiting for justice in this state."

The bill places in state law mostly technical changes in part to reflect a state Supreme Court ruling that found doctors are required to oversee executions, after a state Medical Board rule barred doctors from doing so. The bill also repeals what's left of the 2009 Racial Justice Act, which already was weakened last year by the Republican-led General Assembly.

The original Racial Justice Act allowed death-row inmates to use statistics and other evidence to persuade a judge that bias influenced their sentences. Successful cases convert their sentences to a life term without parole.

But opponents, including most of the state's district attorneys, said the law had the effect of delaying the death penalty by clogging the court system. Nearly all the 150-plus inmates on North Carolina's death row filed for reviews under the law.

Legislators overrode the veto from then-Gov. Beverly Perdue, a Democrat, on the 2012 bill to scale back the Racial Justice Act by making clear that statistics alone cannot prove race was a significant factor in a death row inmate's conviction or sentence. The scope of data such as jury pool and death-penalty case statistics also was limited.

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. Two of the three were convicted of killing law enforcement officers, including state Highway Patrol Trooper Ed Lowry. Some of Lowry's family members sat in the committee audience Tuesday.

The Racial Justice Act was an "ill-conceived law" that has created "atrocious outcomes," Goolsby said.

Sen. Earline Parmon, D-Forsyth, who helped get the original 2009 law passed, asked Goolsby without success to remove from the bill the repeal of the Racial Justice Act, which she said is "about ensuring fairness in our courts."

"I don't think anyone deserves to be tried unfairly," Parmon said. Goolsby said defendants still have many ways to appeal convictions and sentences in state and federal courts.

It's unclear how the law would accelerate carrying out the death penalty, because the courts must decide whether inmates who filed appeals under the 2009 version of the law will have their cases judged under the old or new standard.

A handful of committee spectators were allowed to speak for and against Goolsby's bill, including two district attorneys and Marsha Howell of Mocksville, whose 17-year-old daughter Rolanda was murdered in 1992 by the girl's boyfriend. The defendant, William Christopher Gregory, has been on death row since August 1994. Both the victim and killer are black.

The Racial Justice Act "has put this case right back to start over, and we're getting ready to suffer another how many years?" Howell asked the committee.

Gaston County District Attorney Locke Bell said he might be considered a racist under the law because the three men for whom he has sought the death penalty are white.

Ty Hunter, director of the North Carolina Center for Death Penalty Litigation, said after the meeting that the use of statistics in making a determination of discrimination ignores the Racial Justice Act litigation.

Hunter cited the December ruling of Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks in reducing three death sentences, where he wrote his conclusion of racial bias was "based primarily on the words and deeds of the prosecutors involved in these cases." Now legislators want to ignore what he uncovered, Hunter said.

"It's terrible to find out that we have race discrimination, and for the state's legislature to say we're going to sweep it under the rug," he said.

The bill still would honor the outcomes of Racial Justice Act rulings before the measure takes effect if they are upheld on appeal.