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By Wade Rawlins

RALEIGH, North Carolina (Reuters) - North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue on Thursday vetoed legislation passed by the state's Republican-controlled Legislature to roll back a landmark law allowing death row inmates to use evidence of racial bias to challenge their sentences.

The state's Racial Justice Act, passed in 2009, directs judges to cut a death sentence to life in prison if race is found to be a factor in jury composition or sentencing.

Perdue, a Democrat, said it was a long overdue step to make sure racism did not infect the way the death penalty was carried out. "As long as I am governor, I will fight to make sure the death penalty stays on the books in North Carolina,' Perdue said in announcing the veto.

"But it has to be carried out fairly — free of prejudice."

It was the second time Purdue had vetoed the law in two years. She said the legislature's latest attempt to rewrite the legislation effectively "gutted the law and rendered it meaningless."

Earlier this month, the Republican-controlled House and Senate approved legislation in party-line votes to overhaul the law, arguing that statistical evidence alone would be insufficient to prove racial discrimination in jury selection.

Lawmakers passed the bill after failing in January to gain the needed votes to override a gubernatorial veto of similar rewrite legislation passed in 2011.

In the first application of the existing law, a North Carolina superior court judge in April vacated the death sentence of convicted murderer Marcus Robinson, ruling that racial bias marred the selection of jurors in his trial. Robinson was re-sentenced to life in prison without parole.

In issuing the ruling, Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks said a wealth of evidence regarding patterns of jury selection across the state from 1990 to 2010 showed "the persistent, distorting role of race in jury selection in North Carolina."

The judge said evidence of racial bias in jury selection spotlighted in a study of North Carolina's justice system by Michigan State University law professors clearly showed the need for reform in jury selection in death penalty cases.

"The judge's findings should trouble everyone who is committed to a justice system based on fairness, integrity and equal protection under the law," Perdue said.

"Faced with these findings, the Republican majority in the General Assembly could have tried to strengthen our efforts to fix the flaws in our system. Instead, they chose to turn a blind eye to the problem and eviscerate the Racial Justice Act."

The vetoed legislation now returns to the General Assembly to provide lawmakers with a chance to override the veto. The state Senate and House must each muster a three-fifths majority of members present to overturn a veto.

Republicans hold a veto-proof majority in the Senate, but need the votes of some Democrats in the House to override a veto.

(Editing by Tim Gaynor and Todd Eastham)

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