Sunday, 6 April 2008

Dead wrong


Dead wrong

Find, fix critical errors in N.C. death penalty -- now

He ate bologna when the state of North Carolina let him out. It was his first meal on the outside. But he was served bologna by the state for nearly 14 years as he sat on death row, wrongfully convicted.

Glen Chapman, 40, was released from Central Prison last week after Catawba County District Attorney James Gaither Jr. dismissed murder charges against him. The state, which prosecuted Mr. Chapman, screwed up.

How? Let us count the ways.

A lead investigator, Dennis Rhoney, lied in his testimony about Mr. Chapman's involvement. He withheld evidence that would have proved Mr. Chapman's innocence.

Mr. Chapman's trial lawyers did not investigate the case thoroughly, overlooking key evidence that pointed to his innocence.

A forensic pathologist's report strongly suggested one of the victims might have been a victim of a drug overdose instead of homicide.

This man's trial wasn't just bungled. It was hijacked. And there's an excellent chance that investigators were too busy telling fibs and ignoring evidence to sniff out the real killer.

The scary thing is, this is not an isolated screw-up. Mr. Chapman is the seventh wrongfully convicted death row prisoner in North Carolina to be released, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. In almost every case, prosecutors and lawyers made key mistakes or omissions, or overlooked conflicting evidence that later proved significant.

That's a mandate for a careful examination of whether the state's criminal justice system can fairly and consistently identify, prosecute and execute first-degree murders in every judicial district.

North Carolina has a de facto moratorium on executions until legal wrangling over the procedure used to administer a lethal injection is settled. Yet the issue is not whether there should be capital punishment for the worst murders. The public supports it. The issue is fairness, and how to fix the fatal flaws in the way it is administered.

Consider what an Observer investigation a few years ago found:

The death penalty is applied differently in different jurisdictions across the state.

A murderer's chance of getting a death sentence may depend on the race of the victim.

Whether an accused murderer gets the death penalty rests heavily on whether he or she gets a good lawyer. Death row prisoners may get whiz-bang appellate lawyers, but many were defended at trial by lawyers who were poorly trained and ill-equipped for the job. Mr. Chapman's representation is a case in point.

With each wrongful conviction that comes to light, the odds increase that the state will execute an innocent person while a killer goes free. That's morally repugnant. Lawmakers should use the de facto moratorium to study, examine and fix critical errors in the state's death penalty.

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