RALEIGH — An attempt by the state's district attorneys, backed by Republican lawmakers, to derail North Carolina's two-year-old law allowing statistical evidence of racial bias to overturn death sentences appears to have failed with the governor's veto of their bill Wednesday.
It was Gov. Bev Perdue's 16th veto this year, and one that will likely be raised by opponents during her campaign for re-election next year.
While eight of Perdue's vetoes have been overridden there appears to be little chance of that this time. House Republicans would have to lure five Democrats to muster the 72 votes necessary for the three-fifths margin.
Although five conservative Democrats broke ranks with their party on other issues this year, one of them, Rep. Bill Owens from Elizabeth City, said Wednesday he will not vote for an override. Another, Rep. Jim Crawford from Oxford, said he probably won't, and a third, Rep. Dewey Hill from Brunswick County, said he doesn't know.
"My sense of it right now is it probably will not be overridden," Crawford said. Senate Bill 9 cleared the House in June with all but three absent Republicans voting for it, and all of the Democrats opposing. Without those five votes, Republican leaders would have to look for an opportunity to spring an override vote on a day when not enough Democrats show up for a session, which House Speaker Thom Tillis has said is a possibility.
The Senate, where Republicans have enough override votes, gave final approval to the bill last month, sending it to the governor to act on by the end of this year. Opponents and supporters of the bill have orchestrated campaigns against SB9, and those efforts followed the bill to the governor's office.
In response to a public records request from The News & Observer, the governor's office on Wednesday released some of the correspondence the office has received on the issue since the beginning of November. Of the nearly 300 emails and eight letters provided, all but four urged Perdue to veto the bill.
A spokesman for the governor said additional correspondence The N&O requested is still being compiled, including contacts with individual staff members in the governor's office.
Perdue's decision carries political ramifications as she is expected to have a fight on her hands in running for re-election next year, presumably from challenger Pat McCrory, Charlotte's former mayor. While not wanting to appear soft on crime, Perdue publicly embraced the Racial Justice Act in 2009.
In Wednesday's veto message, Perdue stressed her support for the death penalty, but said it was important to ensure prosecutions and sentences are not tainted by racial prejudice.
"I am vetoing Senate Bill 9 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."
Perdue also rejected the claim by prosecutors that dozens of inmates who successfully challenge their death sentences could be freed from prison. They cite a state Supreme Court ruling to support that position.
The other side, mostly death penalty opponents, cited other cases to argue why the only recourse would be to commute a death sentence to life in prison without parole.
The Racial Justice Act allows death-row inmates to attempt to convince judges that there was racial bias in their case. They can use statistics to help prove that, beginning with a Michigan study showing disparities among races in murder trials. Prosecutors can then argue against that evidence.
Nearly all of the state's death-row inmates have filed claims under the act, and prosecutors contend that will clog the court system with unnecessary arguments that have already gone through years of appeals. SB9 would erase the Racial Justice Act by repealing the section about using statistics and nullifying the hearing process. The bill cites a 1987 U.S. Supreme Court decision rejecting racial-bias claims based on statistics.
DA group disappointed
Susan Doyle, the chief prosecutor in Johnston County and president of the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys, said prosecutors are disappointed with the veto and believe that the Racial Justice Act isn't working the way it was supposed to. It has in effect placed a moratorium on the death penalty in North Carolina, she said.
Doyle's organization holds out hope for an override vote.
"We are hopeful the legislators recognize that this issue has nothing to do with race and everything to do with ending the death penalty in North Carolina," Doyle said in an email. "There is no justice in Gov. Perdue's decision for victims and their families."
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, a Rockingham Republican, vowed his chamber would override the veto.
"As much as Gov. Perdue claims to support the death penalty, she knows the Racial Justice Act and her veto are back-door bans on capital punishment," he said in a statement. "This is the same double-speak ... from a politician focused more on pandering to the left wing of her party than governing responsibly."
Tillis' statement didn't address whether there would be an override vote. But he called the veto "another decision by Gov. Perdue to put politics ahead of principle."
Praise for the veto came from House Minority Leader Joe Hackney, an Orange County Democrat, the American Civil Liberties Union, N.C. Advocates for Justice, Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation, and others.
Staff writer Lynn Bonner contributed to this report.