Death chamber at Central Prison, Raleigh

State lawmakers will meet Wednesday at 2 p.m. to decide whether to uphold the historic Racial Justice Act, a law passed in 2009 to spare the lives of death-row inmates who could prove that their trials, convictions or sentences were influenced by racial prejudice. Under the law, inmates who successfully prove their cases would be allowed to serve life sentences without parole instead of being put to death.

Recently released studies have shown patterns of racial bias in the selection of juries in North Carolina over the past 20 years, as well as in the application of the death penalty to defendants, based on their race or the race of the victim.

But in 2011, a mostly Republican ensemble of legislators set out to dismantle the law. Many have argued the legislation is too broad, and others have criticized it as death penalty opponents’ way to simply stave off further executions in this state.

During the summer and fall, both chambers of the Legislature supported Senate Bill 9, which effectively guts the RJA. Gov. Bev Perdue vetoed the passing of SB 9 on Dec. 14 and chose Jan. 4 as the date Legislators could vote to override her veto. The Senate will consider the bill first, then the House. Three-fifths of the present and voting members in each chamber must agree to override the governor’s decision. An override in the Senate looks certain, but it could prove more challenging for House opponents of the Racial Justice Act to gather enough support to pass the bill.

Even if the Racial Justice Act is repealed, the issue will continue in 2012. Expect the more than 150 death-row inmates who have filed motions under the law to return with additional legal action based on their in-progress appeals.

See tomorrow’s paper for more new stories to watch in 2012.