Raleigh, N.C. — Gov. Mike Easley on Saturday signed legislation that bans executions of the mentally retarded.
"The prosecutors and legislators feel this is a fair bill," Easley said in a statement Saturday. "I have sincere reservations because I support the death penalty and I believe that a defendant who knows right from wrong, and is capable of assisting his counsel in his defense in court, should be subject to the same punishment as anyone else."
Easley, a former prosecutor and state attorney general, agreed to sign the legislation because of the consensus of support. He said support from the state district attorney's association and Atty. Gen. Roy Cooper were "compelling factors" in the decision.
Even without the governor's signature, the bill would have become law today barring a veto.
Seventeen other states and the federal government already had some kind of ban on executions of the mentally retarded, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
"North Carolina is joining what is a national viewpoint that it is wrong to execute the mentally retarded, that we should not be killing people with the minds of children," said Jonathan Broun, a lawyer with the Center for Death Penalty Litigation.
The new law would define as mentally retarded anyone whose IQ was recorded at 70 or lower before the age of 18, with "significant limitations in adaptive functioning" at the same time. A mentally retarded person still could be sentenced to life in prison without parole for first-degree murder.
The legislation requires a unanimous jury decision to find that a murder defendant is mentally retarded and not subject to the death penalty.
Lawmakers approved the ban Tuesday.
The law will apply to capital cases that begin after Oct. 1, though current death-row inmates would have several months to seek hearings on the issue.
Opponents of the legislation argued that supporters were trying to use it to gut the death penalty in North Carolina.