N.C. bucks executions trend
In past 7 years, more states have suspended practice to rethink issue
RALEIGH - More states are following the lead set seven years ago in Illinois by suspending the death penalty while the issue of capital punishment is examined.
North Carolina isn't part of that group -- yet.
But after a judge halted two executions this week and new lawmakers arrived at the statehouse, death-penalty opponents are hoping lawmakers will impose a moratorium on executions.
"The dynamic of this body has changed and continues to change with each legislative session," said freshman Rep. Ty Harrell, D-Wake. "I think that there's, hopefully, a growing re-examination of how this whole approach to crime and punishment is evolving."
Harrell was the only freshman who sent a letter to Gov. Mike Easley asking him to suspend executions until the state can confirm lethal injection does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment.
The letter cited Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's recent decision to institute a moratorium after a botched execution and noted that eight other states have halted executions to review the lethal injection process.
On Thursday, a Wake County judge stopped two executions, saying a recent decision to change the role a doctor plays in the process must be approved by the governor and the Council of State. The change came after the N.C. Medical Board decided that any participation by a doctor, beyond merely attending the execution, violated its ethics policy.
Although the ruling addressed a narrow area of procedure, it effectively "throws open the public debate on the whole issue" of capital punishment, said state Sen. Eleanor Kinnaird, D-Orange, one of the letter campaign's organizers.
But Kinnaird and other opponents of capital punishment aren't likely to win over Easley, a Democrat and a former prosecutor who is a death-penalty supporter and has repeatedly said he sees no need for a moratorium.
Such measures have a history of failure in the House.
In 2003, the state Senate became the South's first legislative body to approve a moratorium. But even a watered-down bill lacked enough votes for passage in the House.
Another moratorium proposal failed to reach a vote in the following session. Instead, then-Speaker Jim Black created the House Select Committee on Capital Punishment in late 2005 to examine the "accuracy and fairness" of North Carolina's death penalty. New House Speaker Joe Hackney, who co-chaired the panel, said members will meet one more time to finalize their recommendations.
While Hackney, D-Orange, said he had not had a chance to discuss the issue with new House members, leaders of anti-death-penalty groups hope that new members such as Harrell and Rep. Dan Blue, D-Wake, will help the moratorium's prospects in the House. Blue is a former speaker who has backed a moratorium in the past.
Others believe the House is just as opposed now as it has been in past years.
"I really don't think the members have changed that much," said Rep. Hugh Holliman, D-Davidson, whose teenage daughter was murdered in 1985. He witnessed the execution of her killer 13 years later. "I don't see a lot of people who have changed their minds one way or the other."
Meanwhile, death-penalty supporters such as Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, said stays like those issued Thursday prove that, while elements of capital punishment may merit study, a moratorium is unnecessary.