Proponents of passing a two-year ban on capital punishment in North Carolina say they have a better chance this year of pushing through a death penalty moratorium then in any time in recent memory.
As evidence, they point to several key factors which they say make the climate right in Raleigh for putting such a ban — albeit temporary — in place.
Among them is the election of moratorium proponent Rep. Joe Hackney, D-Orange, as House speaker, last year's exonerations of death row inmates Allen Gell and Darryl Hunt and the fight over the role of doctors administering a lethal injection.
Gell and Hunt were exonerated after DNA showed they had no connections to the crimes of which they were convicted. Hunt was imprisoned for 18 years and Gell for nine.
In January, the N.C. Medical Board issued a statement prohibiting doctors from assisting in executions, despite a state law that requires that a doctor be present at all executions.
But getting such a ban passed could be difficult. Three years ago, the Senate passed a bill calling for a two-year ban after a highly emotional debate. The House was never been able to muster the votes needed to pass the bill, and Hackney hasn't made a call for a moratorium since assuming the top spot in the House.
Gov. Mike Easley, a former prosecutor, also supports capital punishment. Eight of the 10 members of the Council of State have not taken a stance on the issue.
Polls also indicate a majority of North Carolinians support capital punishment. According to a 2005 poll by the University of Elon, 64 percent supported the death penalty while 24 percent opposed it. Support for the death penalty was consistent regionally across North Carolina — 66 percent in eastern N.C., 62 percent in central N.C., and 69 percent in western N.C.
Over the past several weeks, rallies like the one Ross spoke to and others, have been held in Raleigh calling for a stay on executions or the abolishment of them.
They argue that flaws in the judicial system including racism, prosecutorial misconduct, inadequate defense counsel and classism all combine to make it impossible to administer the death penalty in a fair manner.
A 2001 study examining race and death penalty in North Carolina found that the race of the victim increased by more than three times the likelihood that the death penalty would be imposed.
Additionally, Ross points to Florida's decision to impose a moratorium in December after a lethal injection was administered improperly, causing the condemned inmate to take more than 30 minutes to die, as further evidence that North Carolina should have a ban. North Carolina and Florida use the same procedure for lethal injection.
Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield, a longtime foe of executions, said it's important to see if the state is applying the law in a fair manner. Farmer-Butterfield and the entire Legislative Black Caucus have become more and more outspoken about halting executions.
She said an execution of someone who turns out to be innocent is unacceptable. The state had to release two former death-row inmates last year because later evidence revealed those convicted were innocent of the crimes.
"We do need to step back and give the situation a thorough assessment. We must advocate life," Farmer-Butterfield said. "If we save one innocent person that has been convicted, then it's worth it."
Lawmakers aren't the only ones interested in halting executions. Religious and civic groups, 21 local governments and more than 40,000 North Carolinians have signed a petition calling for a temporary halt on executions.
Sister Joan Jurski, a member of the Office of Peace and Justice with the eastern North Carolina diocese of the Catholic Church which includes St. Therese, said a moratorium is a great step, however, faith groups are hoping to abolish the death penalty in North Carolina. Jurski said they believe life is precious from conception to death.
Earlier this decade, the General Assembly barred the execution of the mentally retarded and gave prosecutors more latitude regarding when to seek the death penalty. Farmer-Butterfield, an advocate for the mentally handicapped, got into the death penalty fracas as a result of this issue.
Ross said adversaries to the death penalty should be attempting to sway the opinion of the public and not just lawmakers. Ross, a civil rights attorney, said the opinion of the entire state wouldn't have to change, only about six or 10 rural areas that strongly support the death penalty. She said if constituents in those counties, which she didn't name, could be swayed, then the balance in the legislature would tip to favor a two-year ban on executions in North Carolina.
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. Three of those men and one of the women are from Wilson County.
Sen. A.B. Swindell said he believes the system works as it is. After talking with constituents, law enforcement in Nash and Wilson counties and with members of the judiciary, Swindell said he will continue to support capital punishment.
"No one wants to put an innocent man to death, but with DNA testing I trust that we get that right," Swindell said. "It's a tough issue, but the system works."
A Nashville Democrat, Swindell did not support the call for a stay of executions passed by the Senate in 2003 — one of the only Democrats to vote against the bill — nor does he still support a ban. He said he didn't understand that why the state didn't create a study commission to look at executions even though no moratorium was passed.
John Hood, president of the John Locke Foundation, said he doesn't think a moratorium will pass. He said the latest controversies surrounding capital punishment will only call attention to the process, but won't provide enough heat to pass a temporary halt.
"The same political pressures that were in place last session will still apply this session," Hood said. "Members in competitive districts won't want to go on record as being opposed to capital punishment."
Hood said there may be a concern about the process in which capital punishment is enacted, but that doesn't mean those who are concerned are opposed to the measure.
"No human institution is ever perfect," Hood said. "We can't operate under the assumption that because there is risk of the error that we can't take any action."
Hood said most members of the General Assembly carry the same beliefs that Carolinians do — capital punishment is a just penalty for the most heinous crimes.
ORDINARY CITIZENS SPLIT
Like state lawmakers, ordinary Wilsonians are split on the call for a moratorium.
Nikole Ames said she's not opposed to the death penalty, however, she said there's been too many questions surrounding some of the cases. Ames said the Gell and Hunt cases made her question if other innocent men and women are on death row.
Charles Radford though said with the number of appeals convicted felons seem to have, he thinks the system works.
"I don't want an innocent man to die, but some criminals deserve the death penalty," said Charles Radford. "If someone did something to my family, I'd want to see them dead."
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