Perdue vetoes repeal of death-row racial bias bill
Posted December 14, 2011
Updated December 15, 2011
RALEIGH, N.C. — Gov Beverly Perdue vetoed a bill on Wednesday that would have essentially repealed a 2009 law designed to address alleged racial bias in death penalty cases, saying it is essential the legal process isn't tarnished by prejudice.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 statement that 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.
Johnston County District Attorney Susan Doyle, who heads the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys, said she and her colleagues were disappointed by Perdue's veto. All of the inmates who have filed appeals under the law have already had their death sentences upheld by courts that have reviewed discrimination claims and other facts, she said.
"The Racial Justice Act is obviously not working as it was intended. The governor's veto creates yet another de facto moratorium on the death penalty," Doyle said in a statement. "North Carolina citizens support the death penalty and do not support a continued moratorium. ... There is no justice in Gov. Perdue's decision for victims and their families."
Meanwhile, the North Carolina Advocates for Justice, a group of trial lawyers and defense attorneys, applauded the veto.
"The governor has done the right thing by allowing courts to hear the evidence and make informed decisions," the group's statement said.
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 said in a statement. "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."
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said that the veto ignores justice and public safety concerns, and he predicted an override in the Senate.
“Gov. Perdue has a moral duty to uphold public safety for the people of North Carolina and preserve justice for the families of victims murdered in the most heinous crimes, and she has failed," Berger, R-Rockinham, said in a statement.
The state chapter of the NAACP urged lawmakers not to attempt an override of the veto.
"The Racial Justice Act is a modest piece of legislation created to defend against any racial bias playing a role in a death sentence," the group said in a statement. "We call on justice-loving and forward-thinking legislators of both parties to uphold the veto and continue to move North Carolina forward rather than backward."
The veto came two days after Perdue met with relatives of murder victims and victims of violent crimes at the old State Capitol 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," said 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.