The House Committee on Ways and Means and Broadband Connectivity on Monday narrowly approved the Racial Justice Act, which would prohibit the execution of defendants who can prove race was an underlying factor in the decision to seek, or impose, the death penalty at the time of their trial. Instead, they would receive life without parole.

The Racial Justice Act, also known as Senate Bill 461, passed 7-5, while removing a controversial clause that would ensure capital punishment will resume in the state. It now proceeds to the House Judiciary I Committee, which approved an earlier House version this session.

The bill faces ardent opposition from the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys, although some of its members, including Durham District Attorney Tracey Cline, have broken with the party line to support the measure. In an interview with the Indy, she indicated her support for the Racial Justice Act, but refused to say so directly in order to avoid a rift with the Conference of District Attorneys.

“The conference votes, and makes their decision,” she said. “My position was totally different.”

Speaking on behalf of the Conference, Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby appeared before the Ways and Means Committee and compared disproportionate sentencing based on race to similar sentencing based on “blood type” or “astrological signs.”

Willoughby called the use of statistics, which the bill would allow, a “disingenuous and scientifically unsound method to insert some sort of causal relationship without proof.”

A 2001 study conducted by two University of North Carolina professors, who analyzed cases over four years in the 1990s, found the odds of receiving a death sentence in North Carolina increased 3.5 times in cases in which the victim was white. In addition, the study found, black defendants were twice as likely to receive death sentences in instances of identical crimes.

Nearly half of the defendants North Carolina has sentenced to death since 1977 are black, although the state has had an African-American population of roughly 22 percent over the past three decades. This figure, collected by the N.C. Department of Correction, does not include defendants sentenced to death and later exonerated for wrongful convictionsthe last three of whom were all African-American.

Cline, who appeared at the Legislature last week on behalf of the Conference of District Attorneys, said she did not lobby for or against the bill. Nor did she speak to any committees, she said, but instead went to speak about a motion filed in Durham Countyalluded to by Willoughby, Minority House Leader Paul Stam, R-Wake, and other Racial Justice Act opponentsin which a defendant charged with murdering a store clerk alleged racial bias in the state’s decision to pursue capital murder charges. (The defendant’s motion wasn’t heard; the charges have been reduced to noncapital murder, due to other circumstances, Cline said.)

“Statistics were used in this case for something that was not supported by the history of the cases in Durham County,” Cline said, pointing to a low rate of capital-murder cases in Durhamjust eight since 1982. Durham also has generally declined to sentence young African-American males to death in gang or drug-related murders.

“Statistics in Durham County were applied in the wrong way. But in other, rural areas, it may be exactly what’s needed,” Cline said. “I don’t want people to think that because of what happens in Durham, we should not support the Racial Justice Act, because I think that would be a travesty.”

In an interview with the Indy, House bill sponsor Rep. Larry Hall, D-Durham, dismissed Willoughby’s argument as “misstatements of the issue.”

“You have to be willing to seek the truth, and again, DAs are officers of the court who are supposed to be seeking truth and justicenot just seeking prosecutions.”

Willoughby acknowledged to the Indy that “We can show periods in history where a person’s race may have affected the judgment they gotwithout question.” But, he added, “I don’t think that jurors are racist, and I don’t think prosecutors are racist.”

Willoughby insisted judges already have the opportunity to admit statistical evidence as the basis for racial bias. “Statistical evidence would be admissible under our current laws if it were relevant,” he said.

By contrast, the Racial Justice Act would require judges in all capital cases to consider this evidence, based on other capital cases in the same county, judicial division or prosecutorial district. If a judge determined that racial bias existed in a capital case, the sentence would be reduced from death to life in prison without parole.

“This is the most significant, irreversible thing we do in the justice system,” Hall said of the death penalty. “If we do not have credibility on this issue, then everything else is called into question.”