Isaac Jackson Stroud was convicted of 1st degree kidnapping and murder in the 1993 beating death of his longtime girlfriend, Jocelyn Mitchell, a Durham school teacher.
On Friday, his death sentence was commuted to a life sentence, plus 30 years.
His attorneys originally sought to commute his death sentence under the state's new Racial Justice Act. Instead, they made the case that it was Stroud's mental health that never made him eligible for the death penalty under the law.
"According to constitutional law you cannot execute a person who doesn't understand the reason for his execution," Stroud's attorney Marilyn Ozer said.
Stroud is African-American - and one of many North Carolina inmates who were testing a new North Carolina law that would allow them to argue racial bias played a role in their sentences.
The prisoners argue that racial bias, in the form of all-white or mostly white juries, helped land them on death row. Under the terms of a 2009 state law, the Racial Justice Act, the prisoners can use statistical evidence to argue their cases.
The law allows judges to consider evidence that one racial group is being punished more harshly than members of other racial groups. Only Kentucky has an equivalent law.
Stroud was poised to argue bias on the part of race at a hearing next month. His attorneys say had they pursued the Racial Justice Act, they believe, they would have won.
"He was not happy with hearing that he's going to spend the rest of his life in prison," Ozer said. "He's happy to be off death row."
"The family just wanted to be sure Mr. Stroud wouldn't be released from prison in his lifetime," Durham DA Tracey Cline said.
However, Stroud's outcome highlights the controversial racial justice act, according to superior court Judge Orlando Hudson.
"This is a very ugly case, ugly case for people of Durham," he said. "This not an easy issue, the Racial Justice act teaches us that. People have strong feelings, high emotions on both sides.
For now, there are no other defendants from Durham on death row with a Racial Justice Act motion on file.