LUMBERTON — It’s unclear if the possible repeal of the Racial Justice Act would affect the cases of five people who were trying to use it to get off death row after being convicted of murders in Robeson County.
Nearly all of the 152 inmates who are on death row in North Carolina have filed for relief under the act, which allows inmates on death row to appeal to have their death sentence reduced to life in prison without parole if they can prove that race was a factor in their cases.
North Carolina has not carried out an execution since 2006.
“From the beginning I thought it was a flawed piece of legislation,” District Attorney Johnson Britt said. “There were already measures that could allege that racial discrimination was part of a case that required evidence as opposed to statistics.
This week, the state House passed legislation to repeal the act. It now goes back to the Senate, where it will likely pass, and then be signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory.
Britt doesn’t anticipate a quick return of executions.
“The issue that will now be litigated in court is whether those motions are removed or are they entitled to their hearing,” he said.
The original version of the act, which allowed inmates to use statistics unrelated to their case as evidence, was removed last year by the General Assembly.
“What it allowed was the use of statistics not necessarily from individual cases but it could be based upon numbers from a trial division, the county or the entire state,” Britt said.
The act has been used by a Cumberland County judge to reduce the sentences of four murderers to life in prison without parole based on a Michigan State University study. The study showed black jurors being removed from murder-trial juries twice as often by prosecutors than whites.
“Critics say it was a failed means to eliminate the death penalty, and it was,” he said.
The repeal of the act also prevents health officials from being prosecuted criminally for providing assistance in executions.
“It gives immunity to doctors and nurses,” Britt said.
Britt said that the Racial Justice Act made appeals easy and stressed the courts.
“There is a tremendous expense of money that are associated with these cases,” he said. “… The court system is already underfunded and these cases bring huge additional costs.”
Britt said the Racial Justice Act wasn’t about justice.
“It isn’t so much about remedying the wrong as it is about trying to avoid a consequence,” he said. “If it was really desired to provide justice then it would mean that they should be ordered a new trial … .”
Rep. Garland Pierce said that there needs to be a mix of people who make up a jury.
“It should not be based on what I look like or where I come from,” Pierce said. “The jury pool needs to be diverse.”
Pierce said that in cases of life or death, it’s essential that impartial jurors be seated.
“I hope that district attorneys would be more sensitive that the jury pools be more fair and balanced,” he said. “Make sure that a person would feel like race is not a factor and that he or she is entitled to a fair and impartial trial.”
The five on death row from Robeson County are:
— Henry McCollum, 49, was sentenced to death for the rape and murder of Sabrina Buie, 11, of Red Springs in September 1983.
— Daniel Garner, 58, is on death row for the murder of two people at a motel in November 1988. He is serving life in prison for a murder and armed robbery at a convenience store and an additional sentence for attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon and attempted robbery in another Cumberland County case.
— Robbie Locklear, 41, was sentenced to death for murdering his stepfather, Jay Taylor, in January of 1994. Locklear has served time in prison for stabbing a quadriplegic in the head with a knife.
— Daniel Cummings, 58, received the death penalty for an armed robbery and murder in Brunswick County that happened in April 1994, and for the death of 80-year-old Lena Hales from Red Springs, who was found by her family beaten to death in her home.
— Jerry Cummings, 73, was sentenced for the murder of his next-door neighbor in Maxton over a dispute about a dog. Cummings was already on parole.