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 use racial bias as an argument for appealing 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 Beverly Perdue vetoed a bill that would have essentially repealed 2009's Racial Justice Act, which was designed to address concerns that race has played a role in sentencing prisoners to death.
The law says a judge must reduce a death sentence to life in prison without parole if he determines race was a significant factor to impose the penalty. It creates a new kind of court hearing where prisoners can use statistics to make their case to a judge. North Carolina and Kentucky are the only states with laws like it.
The Democratic governor had signed the 2009 bill into law. In a statement Wednesday, she 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 the repeal said the act is clogging the courts with new appeals and, in effect, halting capital punishment. 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 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."
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.