RALEIGH, N.C. -- Gov. Beverly Perdue on Thursday vetoed legislation that rolls back a landmark North Carolina law allowing death row inmates to prove their sentence resulted from racial bias.
The Racial Justice Act directs judges to reduce a sentence to life in prison if they find race was a significant factor in a convicted murderer receiving a death sentence or in the composition of jurors hearing a case. Only Kentucky has a similar law.
"As long as I am governor, I will fight to make sure the death penalty stays on the books in North Carolina. But it has to be carried out fairly -- free of prejudice," Perdue said in a statement.
The Republican-controlled Legislature passed the bill by margins that would appear to be enough for an override of the Democratic governor's veto. Legislative leaders said they would try to push the legislation into law over Perdue's effort to block it.
"While Gov. Perdue may claim to support the death penalty, her veto proves she's in lock-step with the leftist elements of her party who want to abolish it," Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, said. "We will work with both sides of the aisle to override yet another irresponsible gubernatorial veto."
The existing state law allows judges to consider statistical analysis of cases showing race must have been a factor in prosecution decisions, even if no one testifies bias played a role in a specific case. Republicans who took over the General Assembly last year have sought to void or weaken the law passed in 2009, when Democrats controlled the Legislature.
The law Perdue vetoed would allow convicts to offer statistics they think prove racial bias from a time span 10 years before a slaying and two years after a sentence. There is currently no time limit.
The bill also said statistics alone cannot prove race was a significant factor in a death row inmate's conviction or sentence.
Statistics also would be limited to conduct of prosecutors near where the murder occurred, rather than anywhere in the entire state as the current law allows.
The state's district attorneys sought the changes after complaining said the Racial Justice Act clogged up the court system and delayed the carrying out of capital punishment. Nearly all the 150-plus inmates on North Carolina's death row filed for reviews under the law, including white defendants convicted of killing white victims.
Opponents say the changes gut the intent of the law, which was removing racial discrimination from the integrity of the criminal justice system and the fairness of carrying out capital punishment.
In the first case under the law, Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks ruled in April that condemned killer Marcus Robinson's 1991 trial was so tainted by the racially-influenced decisions of prosecutors that he should be removed from death row. Prosecutors plan to appeal the sentencing decision.
Robinson is a black man convicted of killing a white teenager. Robinson was nearly executed in 2007, but a judge blocked it.
Weeks said he found highly reliable a study by two Michigan State University law professors that compared death penalty cases across North Carolina over a 20-year period. Their research said prosecutors eliminated black jurors more than twice as often as white jurors and that a defendant is nearly three times more likely to be sentenced to death if at least one of the victims is white.
"The judge's findings should trouble everyone who is committed to a justice system based on fairness, integrity, and equal protection under the law. Faced with these findings, the Republican majority in the General Assembly could have tried to strengthen our efforts to fix the flaws in our system," said Perdue, a Democrat. "Willfully ignoring the pernicious effects of discrimination will not make those problems go away."
Perdue's veto was the second time she's stepped in to defend the Racial Justice Act. In December, she vetoed other legislation that would have essentially voided the law.