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Three convicted murderers on death row have had their punishments commuted to life in prison without parole under North Carolina's Racial Justice Act.
The three cases mark the second time the Act has been used to convert death sentences to life in prison, and the first time it's happened under the newly amended Act, The New York Times reports. The original law passed in 2009 and was amended earlier this year.
The goal of the Act is to seek justice for inmates whose race was a "significant factor" during sentencing. But it has been controversial in North Carolina since is passage.
When it initially passed, the Act allowed death row inmates to challenge their sentences based on statistical evidence.
If the evidence demonstrated that race has a significant influence on sentencing in the state at the time of the hearing, those defendants could potentially get a lesser sentence.
The Act was amended in 2012 when it came up for renewal, adding an extra burden to defendants, according to the ACLU.
The amended Act says that general statistics are not enough to prove that race was a significant factor. Statistics and other anecdotal evidence about the specific district where the case was tried must be used show that race was a significant factor in sentencing.
Opposition to the law was based on concerns that the system would be abused by inmates on death row. It is true that nearly all of North Carolina's death row inmates filed motions under the old Act.
The three inmates whose death sentences were voided also filed their claims under the old Act. As part of his decision, Judge Gregory Weeks ruled that the amendments do not apply retroactively.
But even if they did, Weeks said there was enough evidence to fulfill both the old and new requirements for the three inmates whose death sentences were at issue. Either way, their sentences would have been commuted.
This law doesn't affect the inmates' status as convicted criminals. It only changes their sentences for the crimes committed.
Even though opponents of the law claim that it undermines the justice system, these cases mark only the second time in which inmates have gotten their sentences reduced. They're now serving life in prison with no chance that they'll ever go free.
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