Robert Bacon was scheduled to be executed Oct. 5., but Easley commuted his sentence Tuesday to life in prison without parole.
The move caught attention because another death sentence similar to Bacon's is up for Easley's consideration next week, leaving some to wonder whether Easley might grant another commutation.
Easley declined to discuss Bacon's case but issued a statement stating, "My review of this matter in its totality causes me to conclude that the appropriate sentence for the defendant is life without parole."
Gretchen Engel, one of Bacon's lawyers, said she is thrilled about the decision. "Robert deserves to live," she said, "(He's) very thankful for the governor's actions."
Questions had been raised about whether jurors opposed to interracial relationships had unfairly given Bacon a harsher sentence.
Bacon and his lover Bonnie Clark had conspired to kill Clark's husband. Bacon, who is black, was sentenced to death for the 1987 stabbing, and Clark, who is white, was sentenced to life in prison. "My guess is that questions of racism were troubling to the governor," Engel said. "He's demonstrated his sensitivity to race issues."
Easley, who opposed death penalty appeals while working as attorney general, has refused to commute three previous death sentences.
Lawsuits alleging that Easley is biased and therefore unfit to consider death penalty appeals had been filed in state and federal courts by Bacon's lawyers but were dismissed.
In August, the state Supreme Court ruled that convicted murderers do not have a constitutional right to have an impartial person decide their clemency request. Other suits might be forthcoming.