RALEIGH - Not since 1992 have candidates for governor in North Carolina thought the death penalty was an issue worth talking about, and even then no one was debating the merits.
The candidates looking to replace Gov. Mike Easley aren't likely to get a pass on the issue in 2008.“The more that this continues to be in the news, the more that candidates for the governorship are going to have to take stands and be asked about it,” said John Dinan, a political science professor at Wake Forest University.'
The legal debate over the fairness of lethal injection and the role doctors should play when the state puts an inmate to death has effectively halted capital punishment in North Carolina, and the expected attempts to resolve the issue could extend into the primary season.'
Already, a judge's decision that forced the Council of State into the debate has led two Democratic hopefuls - Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue and State Treasurer Richard Moore - to stake out their positions on capital punishment.Bob Orr, a Republican candidate for governor, is an ex-Supreme Court justice who wrote plenty of opinions on death-row appeals, which could become fodder for his primary opponents. '
And progressive Democrats could make support for a moratorium an issue in the party's primary.
The discussion has the potential to be much livelier than in 1992, when Republican Jim Gardner pointed out that Democrat Jim Hunt, during his previous tenure as governor, had paroled violent criminals who later wound up on death row.But Hunt's tough-on-crime credentials were as strong as any GOP candidate, particularly since he allowed executions to go forward in 1984 after a 23-year hiatus.
He beat Gardner, and won again in 1996. Republicans had little room to criticize his successor, since Easley's 20-year resume as a prosecutor and attorney general included both capital cases and opposition of death-row appeals.
“It's just not an issue that's been brought up,” said Thad Beyle, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
That changed when Wake County Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens dumped the issue in the lap of the Council of State, citing a 1909 law he said requires the council to approve any change in the method for carrying out executions.
The state had removed a doctor from the process in an attempt to satisfy the demands of the state medical board, which in January threatened to sanction any physician who participates in an execution.
“I think it will be quite some time before they ever get this resolved,” Easley said at the council meeting, where a new protocol - one that includes a role for a physician - was approved by a vote of 7-3.
It wasn't long before Moore and Perdue, who both voted with the majority, were engaged in a back and forth over each other's position.Neither has actually declared their candidacy for governor, although both are raising money and are widely expected to seek the job.
After the vote, a Moore adviser pointed out that while a state senator, Perdue said she opposed doing away with the gas chamber because it would lessen capital punishment's deterrent value.
"I think we should make it painful and torturous,” Perdue said in 1995.
Perdue was more measured in her statements last week, saying she believed there should be a death penalty moratorium until “constitutional issues” about lethal injection and medical supervision were decided.
Moore responded by saying he didn't understand Perdue's position
"It seems to me that a call for a moratorium is nothing more than a way to do away with the death penalty,” Moore said.Perdue spokesman Tim Crowley said the lieutenant governor's views were “crystal clear.”
“She has been and continued to be a supporter of capital punishment,” Crowley said.Polls generally have shown a majority of North Carolinians support capital punishment, so any gubernatorial candidate who supports a moratorium runs the risk of being labeled soft on crime.
As the 2008 elections approach, Dinan said it will be interesting to see whether a majority of voters will support any candidate who is willing to back a moratorium.“When it gets mixed in with medical questions, perhaps there's a window for candidates to make a case for the moratorium,” he said.