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North Carolina lawmakers want to repeal bias law, restart executions

By Colleen Jenkins

WINSTON-SALEM, North Carolina (Reuters) - North Carolina lawmakers took additional steps on Tuesday to repeal a divisive racial bias law in a move designed to restart executions in the state.

The 2009 Racial Justice Act, which permitted death-row inmates to cite statistics to help prove that racial discrimination affected their punishment, was already gutted last year by the Republican-led General Assembly.

Lawmakers said a full repeal of the legislation was needed to end the effective moratorium it had imposed on executions in the state. North Carolina has 152 inmates on death row but has not executed anyone since 2006.

"No one wants actual racial discrimination," Representative Paul Stam, a Republican, said during the debate of the proposed repeal. "What we don't want also is for race to be used for a pretext in order to stop the death penalty."

The House of Representatives passed the measure 77-40 and was expected to hold a final vote on Wednesday. The legislation will then go back to the Senate, where it passed along party lines in April.

In 2009, then Democratic Governor Beverly Perdue signed the Racial Justice Act into law when Democrats controlled the legislature. The law allowed an inmate's sentence to be changed to life in prison without parole if a judge determined that racial bias played a significant role in sentencing.

Supporters of the act hailed it as a historic measure that addressed a long history of racial injustice in the state's death penalty system. Critics say it has created unnecessary costs and delays.

In the act's first test, a state judge last year commuted the death sentence of a black man convicted of murder to life in prison, citing abundant evidence of "the persistent, distorting role of race in jury selection in North Carolina."

Statistics show that of the 152 people on death row in North Carolina, 80 are black, 62 are white and the remainder fall into other racial categories in a state where African Americans overall make up around a fifth of the population.

Democratic legislators urged their colleagues on Tuesday not to abandon a law they said had helped expose intentional discrimination in cases where inmates had otherwise exhausted their appeals. They said the law was designed to root out prejudice from trials, not to stop the death penalty.

"We remain imprisoned by the past as long as we continue to deny its existence," said Representative Rick Glazier, a Democrat.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Bob Burgdorfer)

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