RALEIGH, North Carolina (Reuters) - North Carolina’s Republican-led legislature voted on Monday to override Democratic Governor Beverly Perdue’s veto of a law that will limit the ability of death-row prisoners to use statistical evidence of racial bias to challenge their sentences.
The move effectively negates the hot-button Racial Justice Act, which was signed into law in 2009 by Perdue when Democrats controlled the state’s General Assembly. The law directed judges to reduce a death sentence to life in prison if defendants could prove that racial bias factored into their punishment.
Lawmakers who viewed the landmark law as an attempt to undermine the death penalty wrote new legislation to gut it, only to see Perdue veto the rollback last week on the grounds that it rendered the original law meaningless.
But legislators on Monday gathered the three-fifths majority needed in the House of Representatives and Senate to override Perdue’s veto. They had fallen short in January of enough votes to override a gubernatorial veto of similar rewrite legislation passed in 2011.
Proponents of Monday’s move said statistical evidence alone was insufficient to prove racial discrimination in jury selection, or to overturn a death sentence.
“We have people who have been rightfully convicted of cold-blooded murder in the first degree,” said Republican state Senator Thom Goolsby.
He said the Racial Justice Act was “nothing but a back-door attempt to get rid of the death penalty.”
The Senate voted 31-11 to override Perdue’s veto. The subsequent 72-48 vote in the House notched exactly the number of approval votes needed for a three-fifths majority of members present.
Democratic State Senator Floyd McKissick expressed disappointment.
“When we passed the Racial Justice Act, North Carolina was recognized for taking a giant leap forward,” he said. “Unfortunately, today we are abandoning those efforts ... It turns the wheels of justice backwards.”
In April, a North Carolina judge in April rescinded the death sentence of convicted murderer Marcus Robinson after finding that bias affected his trial. The judge said evidence of racial bias in jury selection across North Carolina showed a clear need to overhaul the system of choosing jurors in death penalty cases.
Robinson, whose appeal was the first decided using the Racial Justice Act, was resentenced to life in prison without parole. Approximately 150 other death-row inmates in North Carolina have challenged their death sentences under the law.
The changes to the law on Monday will likely prolong litigation in those cases as courts decide whether the new version applies to pending appeals.
“This is a sad day for justice and for North Carolina,” said Sarah Preston, policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina.
“Politicians have decided they would rather sweep disturbing information under the rug than work to ensure that racial bias plays no role in North Carolina’s death penalty.”
The state Senate also voted 29-13 on Monday to override Perdue’s veto of legislation that would move North Carolina closer to exploration for underground shale gas using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
The vote came a day after Perdue vetoed the fracking legislation. The governor said she supported shale gas exploration, but she rejected the measure passed by lawmakers because it lacked adequate environmental protections.
The House also put the fracking measure on its calendar on Monday. But lawmakers in that chamber had not called it up by Monday evening, indicating they might not have the votes needed for an override.
Editing by Colleen Jenkins and David Brunnstrom