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NC Governor Vetoes Death-Row Racial Bias Bill

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(Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

(Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue vetoed a bill on Wednesday that would have essentially repealed a 2009 law designed to address alleged racial bias in death penalty cases, saying it is essential the legal process isn’t tarnished by prejudice.

Perdue, forced to wade into a controversial topic two weeks ago when the Republican-led Legislature approved the repeal bill, signed the Racial Justice Act into law shortly after taking office in 2009.

The Democratic governor said she’s vetoing the bill “for the same reason that I signed the Racial Justice Act two years ago: it is simply unacceptable for racial prejudice to play a role in the imposition of the death penalty in North Carolina.”

The law says a judge must reduce a death sentence to life in prison without parole if he determines racial bias was a significant factor to impose the penalty. It creates new kind of court hearing where prisoners can use statistics to make their case to a judge.

Perdue said in a prepared statement she supports capital punishment and is committed to keeping it “a viable punishment option in North Carolina in appropriate cases.” But she also said it’s essential that the death penalty be carried out fairly because it’s the ultimate punishment and she feels the 2009 law did that.

Prosecutors who pushed the repeal said the act would clog up the court system with new appeals, creating a permanent moratorium on capital punishment. Nearly all of the 158 prisoners currently on death row have filed papers under the Racial Justice Act.

Perdue rejected arguments from prosecutors that the 2009 law could allow some death-row inmates to be paroled if their crimes were committed before 1994.

“Both my own legal counsel and legal experts from across the state have assured me that even if an inmate succeeds on a claim under the Racial Justice Act, his sole remedy is life in prison without the possibility of parole,” Perdue said.

A phone call seeking comment from the president of the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys wasn’t immediately returned.

Perdue’s decision means she must call the Legislature back to Raleigh by Jan. 8 to consider an override. Lawmakers may find that difficult to do, 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, adding “the governor has turned her back on the families of victims across this state and a vast majority of prosecutors who need every available resource to crack down on violent criminals.”

The governor’s veto came two days after she met with relatives of murder victims and victims of violent crimes at the old Capitol building in Raleigh. Some of those relatives asked her to keep the 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,” according to a statement from Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, which asked Perdue for a veto.

North Carolina and Kentucky are the only states in the country with these types of laws.

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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