Raleigh, N.C. — Family members of several murder victims plan to rally in Raleigh Monday and urge Gov. Beverly Perdue to veto legislation that would essentially repeal North Carolina's landmark law to eliminate racial bias on death row.
“The death penalty doesn't feel like it's really there for all victims' families when the system is so economically and racially skewed," Megan Smith of Asheville, whose father and stepmother were murdered, said in a statement.
Perdue has less than three weeks to decide whether to uphold or repeal the 2-year-old Racial Justice Act, which allows death row inmates to challenge their sentences by using statistical evidence to demonstrate that racial bias could have played a role in their trial. An inmate who is successful would have his or her sentence commuted to life in prison without parole.
All but three of the 160 or so inmates on death row have filed an appeal under the law. Prosecutors, some victims' relatives and legislative critics say that proves the law is too broadly written and will clog the court system for years.
Last week, the Republican majority in the legislature voted to narrow the use of the Racial Justice Act, and House Majority Leader Paul Stam said Friday that Perdue should sign the legislation.
"When she signed the Racial Justice Act two years ago, she was (hoodwinked) into thinking it had something to do with racial justice," said Stam, R-Wake. "Now, she knows it was just a moratorium on the death penalty. She should sign the bill."
Irving Joyner, a professor at the North Carolina Central University School of Law, said studies show the state's death penalty is racially biased. The first challenge under the law is expected to be heard in Cumberland County Superior Court in January, he said.
"I would tell her not to sign the repeal of the Racial Justice Act and allow the court to determine if the capital sentences have been fairly imposed in the past," Joyner said.
Perdue spokeswoman Chris Mackey said the governor has asked both sides to present their cases as she weighs her decision.
"She has always supported the death penalty but believes it must be imposed fairly," Mackey said. "Gov. Perdue believes we should not allow discrimination based on race, poverty or any other factor to infect our criminal justice system."
The governor has three options: She could sign the repeal into law, allow it to become law without her signature or veto it.
If she vetoes the repeal, the Racial Justice Act will stand, and GOP leaders don't appear to have enough votes to override her veto.