On July 15, the House of Representatives of North Carolina voted 61-53 to pass the Racial Justice Act. A similar bill already passed the state senate, though that bill contained an amendment to bypass some objections to the state’s execution process. The new law, if finally approved, would allow judges to consider whether racial bias played a role in the decision to seek or impose the death penalty. “This is a fairness bill,” said Rep. Larry Womble, the Forsyth Democrat who helped champion the bill. “If we’re going to kill people, we must be as fair and objective as we can. This allows one more chance for justice to be blind. … It’s not a get-out-of-jail free card for anybody.”

Studies in North Carolina and elsewhere have shown that defendants are much more likely to be sentenced to death if they killed a white victim than if they had killed a black victim. In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court held in McCleskey v. Kemp that, unless new legislation was passed, defendants would have to do more than just show the presence of racial disparities through studies. The U.S. House of Represenatives passed a similar Racial Justice Act on two occasions that would have applied to all states, but the Senate did not pass the bill. The only other state to pass a Racial Justice Act is Kentucky, where the law allows challenges on a pre-trial basis rather than through appeals.

(See DPIC research and M. Biesecker, “Death penalty bill provokes a battle,” News & Observer (NC), July 15, 2009. See also Race and Recent Legislative Activity.