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Victims' relatives differ on death row bill

RALEIGH (AP) — Gov. Beverly Perdue met Monday with relatives of murder victims, victims of violent crimes and others as she weighed a bill on her desk for two weeks that would essentially repeal a 2009 law designed to address alleged racial bias in death penalty cases.
The Democratic governor spoke at the old Capitol building with two groups of victims — one urging her in the morning to veto the bill approved by the Republican-led Legislature in late November and a second in the afternoon asking her to make it law.
The governor said last week she wanted to meet with groups on both sides of the issue, Perdue spokesman Mark Johnson said after the meetings, each of which lasted about a half hour. While she has until Dec. 29 to veto the bill, sign in or let it become law without her signature, a quick decision is expected.
“She will announce her decision soon,” Johnson said.
Among the faces Perdue saw in the emotional meetings were Shirley Burns of Hope Mills and Bill Magness of Clemmons. Burns is the mother of both death-row inmate Marcus Robinson and another son who was slain in 2006. She wants the new bill vetoed. Magness, who was wounded by gunfire when his wife Anne was slain as they worked as Meals on Wheels volunteers in 2008, wants the bill to stand — and the 2009 law repealed.
Scott Bass, director of the Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, held a news conference after several members and others asked Perdue to veto the new bill. He said group members aren’t angry with crime victims such as Magness who feel differently.
“We’re not against those family members. Nothing could be further from the truth,” Bass said. Instead, he added, “we stand here because we believe that the Racial Justice Act helps our system do a better job of addressing and removing and preventing racial bias, whether it’s intentional or not, whether it’s conscious or not.”
The 2009 law says a judge must reduce a death sentence to life in prison without parole if he determines racial bias was a significant factor to impose the death sentence. The prisoners can use statistical evidence to back up their claims.
District attorneys believe the law is being abused by the 158 offenders on death row, all but a few of whom filed Racial Justice Act appeals. They argue the bill will lead to a permanent death penalty ban in North Carolina because the hearings will clog the courts and strain limited resources. Supporters of the 2009 disagree and argue prosecutors are making misleading claims that some death row prisoners who committed crimes before 1994 could be released on parole.
Perdue signed the 2009 bill into law, but Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill, who prosecuted the Anne Magness’ case, said the governor could change her mind.
“I don’t believe the governor back in 2009 could see how this law was going to be perverted by death row inmates,” O’Neill said before the meeting with Perdue. “And that’s exactly what’s happened when you consider that almost every single person on death row has filed for relief under the Racial Justice Act.”
That includes Timothy Hartford, who shot Anne Magness as she and her husband were delivering lunch to a shut-in at a Forsyth County home in 2008. Bill Magness also was shot six times, the bullets going through hands and arms as he put them up in defense. Hartford, who was sentenced to death in November 2010, is also using the Racial Justice Act to attempt to reduce his sentence, although he and his victims were white.
Bill Magness, now 82, said his family wants Hartford to receive the judgment a court lawfully gave him.
“I have a family. I have four kids that their mother was murdered, and I have eight grandchildren,” said Magness, who lost his right index finger in the shooting. “I was there. I saw my wife get shot in the back, fall face forward to the food that she’s delivering … I could see her shoes as I’m laying on the ground. This guy’s trying to kill me. Why would I have any compassion whatsoever for that fellow?”
Burns said prayer helps her deal with her unique position of having one son on death row and another son, Curtis Lamar Green, who was a murder victim. He was found dead along a Cumberland County road in 2006. Green’s killer was sentenced for second-degree murder, she said. Robinson is using the 2009 Racial Justice Act to attempt to prove racial discrimination tainted his sentencing for murder in the death of a teenager. Burns said there’s no doubt in her mind that bias played a role in the sentence of her son, who is black. The teenager was white.
“It’s not trying to get prisoners out of prison, but it’s making sure that we have a fair trial, without any racial bias,” Burns said in an interview after she and several family members of murder victims supporting a veto visited Perdue. “That’s why I’m here fighting this on his behalf.”
A veto means Perdue would call back the Legislature by early January to consider an override, which may be difficult, especially in the House.
Andre’ Smith, whose 21-year-old son, Daniel, was murdered in December 2007 in Raleigh at a night club and supports the Racial Justice Act, said he was pleased their group could speak to Perdue.
“We had an opportunity to be able to tell our story,” he said.

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