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North Carolina lawmakers to continue death penalty debate

The North Carolina Legislature will be called back after the holidays to continue its debate on whether to overturn Gov. Beverly Perdue's veto of a controversial death penalty bill. If the bill were to pass, it could represent yet another landmark in the state's debate over capital punishment.

The Racial Justice Act, passed in 2009, gives death row inmates and death penalty defendants the ability to use statistics on racial disparities in their criminal defense. But Republicans have called the act a "backdoor deal" to end the death penalty in North Carolina, adding that the bill could overburden the justice system with hearings that have nothing to do with race.

When they took control of the Legislature in November, Republicans introduced a new bill that Democrats say would dismantle the Racial Justice Act. The bill came to Perdue two months after the execution of Troy Davis, an African-American man whose murder conviction was contested and sparked national debates on the death penalty. Perdue's Dec. 14 veto of the new bill angered many capital punishment supporters, including a prosecutor who resigned in protest, and her critics questioned her true stance on the death penalty. Perdue has said that while she is a death penalty supporter, she wants to make sure executions carry no racial bias.

The death penalty is a hotly debated issue in the state, particularly as it pertains to race. A Michigan State University study found that a defendant in North Carolina was 2.6 more likely to be sentenced to death in cases in which at least one of the victims was white.

Senate Republicans may have enough votes to override the veto, but an override may not pass in the House. Whether or not the veto is overturned, the debate over race and capital punishment is far from over.

Source: Los Angeles Times, "Death penalty: N.C. fight will resume after the holidays," Richard Fausset, Dec. 21, 2011

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