RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina's governor on Wednesday halted a Republican effort to dismantle a law that gives death row inmates a new way to argue that racial bias influenced their sentences.
Gov. Beverly Perdue vetoed a bill that would have essentially repealed 2009's Racial Justice Act, which was designed to address concerns that race has played a recurring role in who is sentenced to death. Afterward, the Democratic governor said she supports capital punishment but that it must be applied fairly. Critics accused her of trying to create a back-door ban on executions.
The law says a judge must reduce a death sentence to life in prison without parole if he determines race was a significant factor in the sentencing. It creates a new kind of court hearing where prisoners can use statistics to make their case to a judge. People charged with capital murder also can request a pretrial hearing if a prosecutor plans to seek the death penalty. North Carolina and Kentucky are the only states with laws like it.
The governor had signed the 2009 bill into law and was forced to wade back into the controversial topic two weeks ago when the Republican-led Legislature approved the bill to repeal it.
In a statement Wednesday, Perdue said that "it is simply unacceptable for racial prejudice to play a role in the imposition of the death penalty in North Carolina."
Prosecutors who pushed for the repeal said the act is clogging the courts with new appeals and adding to a tangle of legal issues that have effectively halted executions for the past five years. Nearly all of the 158 prisoners currently on death row – both black and white inmates – have filed papers seeking relief under the Racial Justice Act.
Perdue's veto means she must call lawmakers back to Raleigh to consider an override by Jan. 8. Lawmakers will likely find it difficult to override the veto, especially in the House, where it passed in June along party lines. Republicans are a few votes shy of a veto-proof majority in the chamber.
"I am disappointed in yet another decision by Gov. Perdue to put politics ahead of principle," House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, said in a prepared statement. He said she's let down families of victims and prosecutors "who need every available resource to crack down on violent criminals."
The North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys said that Perdue's veto "creates yet another de facto moratorium on the death penalty."
The last execution in the state took place on Aug. 18, 2006, when Samuel R. Flippen was put to death for murdering his 2-year-old stepdaughter. Since then, no one has been put to death because of various legal rulings, including ones involving execution procedures.
"North Carolina citizens support the death penalty and do not support a moratorium," said Johnston County District Attorney Susan Doyle, the conference president.
Perdue rejected arguments from prosecutors that the 2009 law would allow some death-row inmates to be paroled after 20 years in prison if their crimes were committed before October 1994. She also said she supports capital punishment and is committed to keeping it "a viable punishment option in North Carolina in appropriate cases."
The governor's veto came two days after she met with relatives of murder victims. Some of those relatives asked her to keep the 2009 act on the books.
"We applaud her for understanding that racially-biased justice is not justice at all and for reaffirming that she values the lives and the safety of all citizens regardless of race," said a statement from Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation, a Raleigh-based group that opposes the death penalty.
The North Carolina chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People said that, with her veto, Perdue is "standing firm for more, not less, fairness and equality within our criminal justice system."
Since the law's passage, death row inmates have cited a 2010 study by two law professors at Michigan State University that found a defendant in North Carolina is 2.6 times more likely to be sentenced to death if at least one of the victims was white. The study also showed that of the 159 people on death row in the state at the time of the study, 31 had all-white juries and 38 had only one person of color on the jury.
North Carolina's defense attorneys, the N.C. Advocates for Justice, praised the veto, as did the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "The Racial Justice Act is a crucial safeguard against well-documented racial discrimination in our state's capital punishment system," said Sarah Preston, the state chapter's policy director.
Associated Press writer Martha Waggoner in Raleigh contributed to this story.