Pricey Harrison

Friday, July 15, 2005

Death Penalty Study

A House judiciary committee on which I sit agreed on a voice vote to a bill that would create a commission to study capital punishment in North Carolina, but stops short of a two-year pause or moratorium on all executions. The same panel agreed at the end of May to a two-year temporary halt to executions while the study was performed to examine pitfalls in the justice system, but supporters did not have the votes to get it through the full House, which prompted the compromise measure.

The latest version would allow a Superior Court judge to delay the execution date of a death-row prisoner if it falls during the study period under certain circumstances. The new version would set up a 15-member legislative study commission to look at how race relates to the death penalty, whether defendants have qualified attorneys, whether prosecutors are following correct procedures and other aspects of the system. I was able to amend the study portion of the bill to add the appropriateness of the application of the death penalty in cases involving the felony murder rule. Legislators would have until early 2008 to finish the study. Opponents say this version is worse than the hard moratorium because it would allow a trial judge to overrule decisions by higher courts. The bill now goes to the full House.

During the study, inmates on death row could ask a Superior Court judge for a stay of execution based on credible evidence of one of seven factors outlined in the bill:

* The inmate is innocent;
* Prosecutorial misconduct may have contributed to the verdict or sentence of death in cases that predate recent law that required prosecutors to give murder defendants their files;
* Errors were made by defense counsel in cases that predate recent state standards for defense lawyers;
* Race was a factor in the handling of the case;
* Execution would not be proportionate with punishments in similar cases;
* Prosecutors might not have asked for the death penalty in cases before May 2001, when they first got discretion to ask for a life sentence instead; and
* The inmate might not have gotten the death penalty if a life sentence had been available at the time.

Supporters of the study continue to point to recent exonerations and exposed problems with our state's judicial system and the need for a closer examination to ensure absolute fairness and accuracy. Alan Gell of Bertie County spent six years on death row before getting a new trial, where he was acquitted. Darryl Hunt of Winston-Salem served 18 years of a life sentence before being exonerated. And, last week DNA evidence at the least put into question the conviction of Rex Penland, who has been on death row for 11 years.

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