North Carolina Senate Votes for Executions Moratorium
In another sign of growing doubts about how capital punishment is administered in the U.S., the North Carolina Senate has voted for a bill calling for a moratorium on executions until June 2005, while the state conducts a comprehensive study of its death penalty system.
Passage of the bill by a 29-21 margin last week marked the first time that any legislative body in the southern United States had approved a moratorium, and it came in a state that has the sixth-largest death row in the nation. The bill now goes to the House.
“We had the army of God behind this measure,” State Sen. Ellie Kinnaird (D-Carrboro), the primary sponsor of the bill, said referring to a coalition of religious organizations who started pushing for a moratorium eight years ago. This was the first year a moratorium bill even made it out of committee.
Stephen Dear, director of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, said, “Thousands of ordinary North Carolinians are upset that people have been sent to death row who were innocent, or who had a drunk attorney or simply because they killed a white person.” Three years ago, the Charlotte Observer, the state’s largest newspaper, published a series raising questions about whether some defendants had received an adequate defense.
Then, in April 2001, a University of North Carolina Law School study concluded that the chances of a defendant receiving a death sentence in the state increased by 3 1/2 times if the victim was white. A few months later, the state executed Ronald Frye, despite evidence that he had received a shoddy defense because his lawyer was consuming up to a dozen shots of rum nightly during Frye’s trial.
Last year, North Carolina Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake Jr. appointed a commission to review how frequently innocent people are convicted of capital and noncapital crimes.
Meanwhile, 21 North Carolina cities and counties have passed resolutions urging that a moratorium be instituted, and several of the state’s leading newspapers, including the Charlotte Observer and the Raleigh News and Observer, also have supported a moratorium.
Although North Carolina has a reputation for being more progressive than most Southern states, it has not been a hotbed of opposition to capital punishment until recently, and even now polls show that two-thirds of the state’s population expresses general support for the death penalty.
North Carolina has executed 23 people since reinstituting the death penalty in 1984, more than all but 10 of the 38 states with capital punishment laws. There currently are 202 condemned inmates there.
During the moratorium, the legislature would study the adequacy of defendants’ legal representation, contentions that the death penalty is imposed disproportionately on blacks, allegations of prosecutorial misconduct and the process of review of capital cases by appellate courts. “This bill does not stop a single trial, does not stop a single appeal or vacate a single death sentence,” said Lao Rubert, director of the Carolina Justice Policy Center, a nonprofit group that works on criminal justice issues and actively supported the measure.
A close vote is expected in the House, which is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.
Some Democrats are pro-death penalty, but a moratorium measure in the House has some Republican backers.
“I am very encouraged” by the Senate action, said David Miner, a six-term Republican from Cary who co-chairs the House Finance Committee and is a co-sponsor of a moratorium bill in that body.
“It was a historic vote and we hope to repeat that in the House in coming weeks,” Miner said in an interview Friday.
He noted that the measure drew five Republican votes in the Senate, enough to counter five Democrats who voted against it.
Miner, who emphasized that he is a “pro-life Republican” and an avid supporter of President Bush, said he supports reform because “capital punishment is discriminatory,” stressing that most people on death row are poor.
He said he believes that many of them had inadequate legal representation and that there are innocent people on the state’s death row.
Death penalty proponents, including the Conference of District Attorneys and the state attorney general’s office, maintained that a moratorium was unnecessary and legally unwarranted.
Foes of capital punishment “have misled the public by irresponsibly charging that innocent people or people with mental retardation have been sentenced to death,” the district attorneys association said in a formal position paper. The organization also denied that “people are being sent to death row because of racial bias, incompetent defense counsel, prosecutorial misconduct and arbitrariness.”
Some legislators also contended that the measure was simply a prelude to an effort to abolish the death penalty in the state. But proponents, even abolitionists such as Dear, said there was no prospect of abolition on the horizon.
North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley, a career prosecutor, has said that he does not believe a moratorium is warranted. But after the bill passed the Senate, Easley’s spokesman said the governor would carefully review the measure if it gets to his desk.
Illinois currently is the only state with a capital punishment law that has a death penalty moratorium.
Maryland briefly had a moratorium but it was terminated by the state’s new Republican governor soon after he was inaugurated earlier this year.
Moratorium legislation was introduced in 18 other states this year and is still pending in 13 of those states.