Today, Gov. Beverly Perdue signed into law the Racial Justice Act, saying the bill’s passage “ensures that when North Carolina hands down our state’s harshest punishment to our most heinous criminals – the decision is based on the facts and the law, not racial prejudice.”

Perdue’s signature, which follows a dramatic 25-18 N.C. Senate vote, makes North Carolina only the second U.S. state to pass legislation that allows capital defendants to present evidence–including statistical data–arguing that race was an underlying factor in the decision to seek, or impose, the death penalty at the time of their trial. Previously, defendants could only make a claim of racial discrimination based on explicit evidence of racism in the courtroom.

The law gives current death-row inmates one year to file a claim, and allows all other capital defendants to present such a claim during pre-trial hearings, or following the sentencing phase. If a judge is satisfied that the defendant has proven race was an underlying factor, despite counter-evidence presented by the prosecution, he or she can reduce the sentence or the charge to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Press releases from the Governor’s office, Amnesty International, and the N.C. NAACP, after the jump:

From the Governor’s office:

Gov. Perdue Signs North Carolina Racial Justice Act

Raleigh – Gov. Perdue today signed Senate Bill 461, the North Carolina Racial Justice Act, which permits defendants and inmates to challenge death sentences by presenting statistical evidence racial bias. The bill was sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Floyd McKissik (D-Durham) and in the House by Rep. Larry Womble (D-Forsyth), Rep. Earline Parmon (D-Forsyth), Rep. Paul Luebke (D-Durham) and Rep Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford).

‘I have always been a supporter of death penalty, but I have always believed it must be carried out fairly,” said Perdue. ‘The Racial Justice Act ensures that when North Carolina hands down our state’s harshest punishment to our most heinous criminals – the decision is based on the facts and the law, not racial prejudice.”

The Racial Justice Act will allow inmates on death row and persons charged with a capital crime to present a judge with evidence that shows race was a significant factor that led to the imposition of the death sentence. If the judge agrees with the evidence, the death sentence can be overturned to life in prison without possibility of parole.

‘This is extremely significant legislation that will help to assure us that when the death penalty is used as an ultimate punishment that the decision is free of racial biases and prejudices,” said Sen. McKissick.

‘This is a very auspicious and also historic occasion for the state of North Carolina. This is about justice for our state, and North Carolina is leading the nation in this particular area,” said Rep. Womble. ‘I want to thank all of the sponsors, supporters and the people of North Carolina. We want the world to know that we will be fair and objective in this area. Thanks for the support of the governor and the Speaker of the House – the passage of this bill would not have been possible without their help.”

From Amnesty International:

Amnesty International Applauds Gov. Perdue for Signing Racial Justice Act,

Saying Other States ‘Should Take Notice and Immediately Act’

(Washington, D.C.) — Laura Moye, director of Amnesty International USA’s Death Penalty Abolition Campaign, issued the following statement regarding the Racial Justice Act becoming law in North Carolina:

‘Today, North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue signed the Racial Justice Act into law, making North Carolina the second state, after Kentucky, to allow death row prisoners to meaningfully challenge their death sentences if racial bias is evident.

‘Race, particularly race of the victim, has been a major factor in who does and does not get death sentences in North Carolina. For too long evidence has indicated that African-Americans are treated more harshly in North Carolina than other defendants, and their lives are accorded less value when they are murder victims. It is not inconsequential that 35 inmates on North Carolina’s death row were put there by all-white juries.

It is significant that North Carolina has taken a leadership role in directly confronting its legacy of racism and has gone the extra mile to prevent its capital punishment system from being infected with racial bias. While the death penalty in and of itself constitutes a human rights violation of the highest order, racially influenced sentences are a highly disturbing vestige of an era that should have long passed. The 33 other states that use the death penalty, both northern and southern, should take notice and immediately act, as no state is immune from the scourge of racism when it comes to administering justice.”

From N.C. NAACP:

Statement by Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II, at the Signing of the Racial Justice Act by Governor Perdue

We, the NAACP, stand here today to commend the sponsors of the Racial Justice Act (State) Rep. Larry Womble, (State) Rep. Earlene Parmon and (State) Senator Floyd McKissick and their stalwart commitment to the Racial Justice Act even when sometimes they were told to pull the bill or weaken it. We stand shoulder-to-shoulder to commend every advocate group and religious body who worked for years to see this law passed. We stand as the oldest largest civil rights organization in the state and country to commend Governor Perdue today for signing this act into law.

Today on August 11th, Alex Haley, the author of Roots was born. One of his famous quotes was ‘either we deal with reality or reality will deal with us.” This Racial Justice Act is not about trying to let criminals go as some have absurdly suggested. It does not open up old wounds for victims because both proponents and opponents support the Racial Justice Act as well as families who have been victims of horrendous murders. Anyone who uses this language to speak against the bill is wrongfully maligning a good piece of legislation which looks squarely at the reality and the empirical data which shows how race impacts the application of the death penalty.

Since the (United States) Supreme Court restored the death penalty in 1976, 129 men on death rows have been exonerated, 70 from the south, including North Carolina. In the past two years, three black North Carolinians – Jonathan Hoffman, Glen Edward Chapman, and Levon ‘Bo’ Jones – were exonerated after serving more than 41 years on Death Row collectively. A fourth, Darryl Hunt, was exonerated in 2004. James Johnson was recently exonerated after spending 39 months in jail for a murder and rape the State knew he did not commit. That makes five black men from N.C. in five years, who spent collectively over 60 years in prison, found innocent and were victims of prosecutorial misconduct—the deadliest form of racial profiling.

The injustice within the application of the death penalty is pandemic. By passing the Racial Justice Act we have infused antibiotic treatment to a system that is diseased with the infection of racism. The opportunity to correct a longstanding injustice for racial and ethnic minorities is here in North Carolina with the Racial Justice Act.

Exhaustive studies by the Death Penalty Information Center conclude, ‘Race plays a decisive role in the question of who lives and dies by execution in this country. Race influences which cases are chosen for capital prosecution and which prosecutors are allowed to make those decisions. Likewise, race affects the makeup of the juries, which determine the sentence. Racial effects have been shown … in virtually every state for which disparities have been estimated and over an extensive period of time…….. Nationwide, over 52% on death rows are African American and Hispanic.”

The NAACP is against the death penalty but this law can be and is supported by proponents of the death penalty who recognize that we must have as a core value the assurance that the utilization of race is not a factor in sentencing. That we must have not one form of sentencing in Chapel Hill and another form of sentencing in Winston Salem; one form of sentencing for those who are black and another form of sentencing for those who are white; one form of sentencing for those who are poor and another form for those who are wealthy.

With the signing of this bill into law, the only persons who have to worry about the application of the Racial Justice Act are those who would use race. If race is or has never been used then the remedies of the law will never be activated. Let us all report correctly: the law provides a potential remedy only for those who can conclusively demonstrate to a judge that race played a role in their case.

This law does not assure racial justice, but it can help bring it about. The law is one of the most powerful legitimate weapons we can use to rid our state of the criminal justice practice of racial bias. It does not address the roots of the problem – stereotypes, fear and even racism – but it is a start.