Raleigh, NC -- Gov. McCrory could sign a bill as soon as this week that would allow death penalty executions to resume in the state of North Carolina. That bill would repeal a measure called the Racial Justice Act, which permitted death row inmates to appeal their sentences if they believed racial bias was a factor in the imposing of that maximum sentence.
Once the Senate agrees on the House of Representatives' changes to the Senate-sponsored SB 306, expected to happen Wednesday, it will go to the governor to sign or veto within 10 days.
The Racial Justice Act was passed in 2009 by the then-Democrat majority legislature. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, four death row inmates were successful in using this act to get their death sentences commuted to life in prison. But, the act caused nearly all death row inmates in North Carolina to appeal their sentences, which virtually halted death penalties in the state.
That's why now supporters of the senate bill that would repeal the act claim the measure unnecessarily has delayed justice for victims' family members and has wasted state resources in allowing these appeals to be heard.
According the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, of the counties in WFMY News 2's viewing area, those with the highest number of death row inmates convicted in that county are Forsyth with 13, Randolph with eight, Guilford with four (five, including a man also sentenced to death for a murder in High point, according to the Guilford County DA's office) and Davidson with three.
The racial makeup of the 153 inmates currently on death row in North Carolina, according to the Department of Public Safety includes 62 inmates - 60 men and two women - who are white, 80-79 men and one woman - who are African American, seven men who are Indian and four men categorized in the "other" category.
Soon, one more African American man could be added to this list: 33-year-old Mario McNeill from Fayetteville. Two weeks ago, a jury found him guilty of kidnapping and murdering 5-year-old Shaniya Davis. He maintained his innocence during the trial and rejected a plea deal that would have spared him a possible death penalty sentence. After his conviction, McNeill told a Superior Court judge that he wants no one to testify on his behalf during sentencing.
Forsyth County Assistant District Attorney Mike Silver has been involved in several Racial Justice Act litigations in both Forsyth County and statewide, including three of the four cases in which death row inmates did successfully have their death penalty sentences commuted to life in prison by using Racial Justice Act-based appeals.
Silver said the appeals that already have been filed for litigation but not yet reviewed by the Superior Court Judge or North Carolina Supreme Court will not be affected by the repeal of the Racial Justice Act. Attorney General Roy Cooper has not returned WFMY News 2's calls requesting confirmation of that information.
Proponents of the repeal of the Racial Justice Act, like Silver, argue the act has delayed justice for victims' families and has caused many of them to relive, during the litigation hearings, painful memories. Silver also said even if the Racial Justice Act is repealed, death row inmates still can appeal their sentences using a variety other options.
Opponents of the repeal, including Guilford County criminal defense attorney Locke Clifford, say the disparity in racial makeup of the inmates on death row affirms that racial bias of judges and jurors can and does influence the imposition of sentences.
According to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety Communications officer Keith Acree, the cost to house a death row inmate for a year is approximately $33,000. The cost of incarcerating a non-death row inmate for a year is about $27,572.