The postponement this week of two scheduled executions adds fuel to a movement by state legislators and advocates who for years have been calling for a temporary suspension of the death penalty in North Carolina.
Combined with recent decisions by other states questioning the use of the death penalty, a Wake County judge's ruling Thursday to delay the execution of two convicted murderers will bring more attention to some legislators' ethical concerns about how the state uses capital punishment.
But ethical concerns are one thing; passing a bill that would suspend all executions in the state is something else entirely.
In interviews this week, supporters of a two-year suspension, or moratorium, on the death penalty expressed sharply divergent views about the likelihood of that happening this year.
"It is very likely. We've got very strong support as far as numbers go," said Jeremy Collins, the campaign coordinator for the N.C. Coalition for a Moratorium.
Sen. Ellie Kinnaird helped write a letter to Gov. Mike Easley this week, which was signed by 30 legislators calling for a moratorium. She is less optimistic about a moratorium.
"I think that would have a very tough road ahead of it," said Kinnaird, D-Orange.
Supporters of a moratorium say that the state should suspend executions while it studies whether the death penalty is used fairly and equitably. They point to Florida, where Gov. Jeb Bush imposed a moratorium in December after a lethal injection was administered improperly, causing the condemned inmate to take more than 30 minutes to die. North Carolina and Florida use the same procedure for lethal injection.
Complicating the matter further is a recent ethics decision by the N.C. Medical Board that prohibits doctors from assisting in executions, despite a state law that requires that a doctor be present at all executions. A narrow legal issue arising from that conflict was the basis for the postponement of the executions of Marcus Robinson and James Thomas, which had been scheduled for this week and the next.
"At this point, with all the issues surrounding the death penalty and the issues that have made it be in the forefront, we just need to stop and look at all the flaws in the system," said Rep. Earline Parmon, D-Forsyth.
Parmon, who signed the letter to Easley, said she supports the death penalty, but only if it is carried out correctly.
Bills that would enact a two-year moratorium have been introduced in North Carolina before. The N.C. Senate passed such a bill in 2003 by a vote of 29-21, but there has never been enough support to pass it in the House.
This year, another moratorium bill is sure to be introduced. Kinnaird said she also plans to introduce a bill that would bar execution of the mentally ill.
A lot will depend on a new crop of Democratic legislators entering their first terms this month. Most Democrats support a moratorium, and the party increased its majorities in the House and the Senate this year. But the views of the incoming Democrats - many of whom are on the conservative side of the party - are unknown.
In addition, many people are looking to the new speaker of the House, Rep. Joe Hackney, D-Orange, to see if he will use the position to push through a bill containing a moratorium.
Hackney has been one of the biggest supporters of a moratorium in past years, but in the three days since he became speaker, he hasn't made it a big issue. He did not mention it in his acceptance speech, and later, when asked whether it will be a priority for him this year, he was noncommittal.
"We have not had the votes in the past, and we'll probably count votes," he said. "I don't know where we are."
Hackney's right-hand man, Rep. Hugh Holliman, D-Davidson, the House majority leader, does not support a moratorium. In 1985, his 16-year-old daughter was fatally stabbed. Her killer confessed to the crime and was later executed. Holliman said in an interview earlier this month that he knows from personal experience that the system works.
As majority leader, however, Holliman said he wouldn't speak out against a moratorium if it were on the Democratic agenda - though he would vote against it.
Since 1984, when North Carolina reinstated the death penalty, 43 people have been executed. There are currently 163 men and four women on death row.
Collins said he is seeing more and more people - both in the legislature and in the public - who are questioning the death penalty.
"Some of the more conservative folks are starting to ask some of the same questions," he said. "I think the real change is not what's happened in the Democratic Party. It's what's changed on the landscape of North Carolina."
• James Romoser can be reached in Raleigh at 919-833-9056 or at email@example.com.