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RALEIGH, North Carolina (Reuters) - North Carolina lawmakers tentatively approved on Tuesday legislation that would gut a state law allowing death row inmates to use evidence of racial bias to challenge their sentences.
The controversial Racial Justice Act, signed into law in 2009 by Democratic Governor Beverly Perdue when Democrats controlled the state's General Assembly, permits prisoners to use statistics to challenge their death sentences by showing that racial bias affected the punishment.
Republicans now have a majority in the legislature and want to change the law.
On Tuesday, the House approved by a 72-47 vote a bill aimed at undoing much of the act. Final approval was expected in the House on Wednesday, but it would still need to be passed by the state Senate and signed by the governor to become law.
The current law provides that inmates sentenced to die are entitled to have their sentences changed to life in prison without parole if a judge determines that racial discrimination played a significant role in their sentencing.
The new legislation states that statistical evidence alone would be insufficient to prove racial discrimination in jury selection. It also would limit use of statistical evidence of racial bias in jury selection to the area where a defendant was tried.
State lawmakers previously passed legislation to weaken the law, but could not muster the votes in the House of Representatives in January to override a veto by Perdue.
"It gets the focus where it should belong, on the person who is alleged to be a first-degree murderer and the focus where the prosecution occurred and when it occurred," said Rep. Paul Stam, Republican majority leader in the House.
Opponents of the legislation argued that a court had found overwhelming evidence of racial bias in jury selection.
In the first test of the Racial Justice Act, a North Carolina judge in April vacated the death sentence of convicted murderer Marcus Robinson, ruling that racial bias had marred jury selection in his trial.
Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks re-sentenced Robinson to life in prison without parole and said the evidence of racial bias in jury selection should serve as a clear signal of the need for reform in death penalty cases.
"The problem we should be focusing on rather than the Racial Justice Act is how to create an equitable jury pool," Rep. Kelly Alexander, a Democrat, said during the debate on Tuesday. "When you don't have a jury pool that is truly reflective of your community, you have a problem."
Editing By Colleen Jenkins