Death-penalty moratorium is watered down to a study

By: - July 12, 2005 4:50 am

Wilmington StarNews Online

RALEIGH – Just weeks after appearing close to passing a two-year ban on capital punishment in North Carolina, death penalty opponents are pushing a watered-down bill that would instead only require that the state study the issue.

The legislation, expected before a state House judiciary panel today, would allow for certain death-row inmates to petition, while the study is under way, for a stay – something that’s generally already available to the condemned.

The earlier bill, imposing both a two-year ban on executions along with the study, failed to win enough support in the House. The measure’s primary sponsor said more of his colleagues support the new version.

"I feel like that we are a lot closer than we were before" to passing it, said Rep. Joe Hackney, D-Orange.

But the new version is a disappointment to moratorium backers, who felt just a few weeks ago they were close to achieving a major victory.

The North Carolina Coalition for a Moratorium "reluctantly supports the compromise," group spokesman David Neal said Monday. "The ultimate goal is for the General Assembly to seriously study (capital punishment). This bill is going to do that."

Two years ago, the state Senate became the first legislative body in the South to approve a moratorium. But a similar bill didn’t have the votes to clear the state House in 2003 or this year. If any bill passes this year in the House, it would still need to clear the Senate and be signed by Gov. Mike Easley, who doesn’t support a moratorium.

The original version of the legislation would have placed a blanket ban on carrying out the death penalty through mid-2007 while a 15-member commission examined whether suspects and convicts in death-row cases get enough help from their lawyers. The panel also would have examined prosecutorial misconduct and whether race plays too great a role in capital cases.

That bill passed a House committee six weeks ago. But when many conservative Democrats signaled they weren’t willing to back the bill once it reached the floor, House leaders pulled it from a vote.

The updated version keeps the study, but removes a full moratorium. Instead, it would allow a Superior Court judge to delay the execution date of a death-row prisoner if it falls during the study period.

While inmates can already generally petition for a stay, the bill sets out seven specific grounds on which they could seek a delay of their execution – including if there is evidence of factual innocence, prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective counsel or racial bias. Such a stay could be issued even if the defendant had failed to persuade other courts to grant a delay citing the same issues.

That provision has earned the bill the continued opposition from the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys, whose immediate past president called it "just the same package with the new wrapping."

Frank Parrish, the district attorney for seven northeastern counties, said the bill would set a poor precedent by allowing a trial court judge to essentially negate the rulings of any trial or appeals court at both the state and federal level. "As broad as these grounds are, I cannot imagine, under all likelihood, an inmate not being admitted a stay," Mr. Parrish said.

But Mr. Hackney, the majority leader, said legislative staff members believe only half of the about 20 death-row prisoners likely to become eligible for the setting of an execution date while the study is under way would also have grounds to seek a stay if the bill becomes law.

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Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066