N.C. bias bill adds to death penalty debate

Anti-death penalty forces are pushing the legislature in its final days to pass a law that would allow murder defendants facing death to challenge prosecutors' decisions as racially biased.

But to get that, death penalty foes may have to accept a move to start executions, which have been stalled for more than a year.

In their final days at work, legislators will debate life and death, penalties for gang members and a school bullying bill that may include gay students among those it seeks to protect.

Legislators want to end their work by Friday.

Senate Democrats are talking among themselves about trying to pass a measure aimed at addressing racial bias in death penalty cases.

The House has already passed a bill that would allow murder defendants to use statistical evidence that race was a significant factor in prosecutors seeking the death penalty or in juries imposing it.

The state NAACP president is prodding senators to approve the measure.

If Senate Democrats move forward with it, Republicans see a chance to get something they've been fighting for – a provision that may allow the state to resume executions.

Executions have been stalled for more than a year, partly because the Department of Correction cannot find doctors who will take part in them, as the law requires. Last year, the N.C. Medical Board adopted an ethics policy that forbids doctors from doing anything more than being present at executions.

Sen. Phil Berger, the chamber's Republican leader, said the racial bias bill may offer a chance to add in a GOP proposal freeing medical personnel to participate in executions without fear of disciplinary action from their governing boards.

The Rev. William Barber, state NAACP president, doesn't want the two issues combined.

“It should stand alone,” he said of the racial bias bill. “This is about death, and this is about people dying simply because of their race.”

The N.C. Conference of District Attorneys doesn't want statistics to play a role in death penalty cases.

“The DAs really think it's an inappropriate element to put into the death penalty process,” said Peg Dorer, conference director. The measure would open the way for “statisticians to come in and testify and manipulate statistics,” Dorer said.