Death-row bill OKs appeals

By: - July 13, 2005 4:55 am

Fayetteville Observer

By Michael Wagner
Staff writer

RALEIGH – Fayetteville lawmakers say they will support a revised death-penalty bill.

The measure abandons efforts for a two-year moratorium on executions but would give inmates on death-row another opportunity to appeal their cases.

"I think that we have to know that we are doing this correctly and legally and that the right people are on death row," said Rep. Margaret Dickson, a Fayetteville Democrat.

On Tuesday, a House panel approved a bill that would authorize a two-year study into problems with the death penalty system.

But rather than pair it with a two-year moratorium, the bill would allow inmates on death row to petition for a stay with the Superior Court judge in the county they were sentenced.

The petition would be granted if the judge finds that at least one of seven criteria applies to the case, including evidence of factual innocence, prosecutorial misconduct and errors by the defense.

The bill now heads to the House floor for a vote.

Opponents of the bill, who are mostly Republicans, said stopping executions isn’t necessary for the state to study the issue.

There are dozens of opportunities for appeals built into the system, they say, and halting executions would be a blow to victims’ families and would lead to more crime.

Rep. Ronnie Sutton, a Robeson County Democrat, is one exception to the partisanship that so far has divided lawmakers over the bill. He said the bill is an attempt to impose a moratorium, but on an individual basis.

"They’re just trying to disguise it in some form to get something passed," Sutton said. "It’s a sham."

Sutton sponsored a bill to study the death penalty a couple of years ago. He said he thinks the sponsors of the current legislation are more interested in abolishing the death penalty than they are in studying it.

Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt agreed, saying he thinks the bill undermines the court system.

"It further erodes the public’s confidence of what goes on in the courts every day across this state," he said.

But those who support a moratorium say that not stopping executions is like investigating problems with jet engines while allowing planes carrying those engines to fly.

"The reason for a pause is to ensure that innocent lives aren’t taken," said Alan Gell.

Gell, of Bertie County, was on death row for almost six years before he was cleared by DNA evidence last year.

Rep. Marvin Lucas, a Fayetteville Democrat, said he will vote for the bill, even though he thinks it will fail on the floor. He said he supports the death penalty but wants to make sure it’s done properly.

"Once you condemn a person to death, it’s final," he said.

The moratorium became an issue after two people, including Gell, were exonerated. But in many of the cases that have been called into question, evidence was either withheld, or prosecutors didn’t do their jobs.

Carl Ivarsson is a Fayetteville defense lawyer.

In his experience, he said, that hasn’t been the case in Cumberland County.

The district attorney’s office routinely turns evidence files over to the defense and did so even before the discovery laws were expanded in 2003, he said.

Still, he said, he doesn’t understand why opponents are so emphatically against a moratorium if it could save an innocent life.

"I don’t know what harm a two-year moratorium would have done," he said. "I thought it would have been a good idea."

Execution moratorium

DEATH KNELL?: Some lawmakers want executions to stop while a panel studies the issue for two years. The measure has passed the Senate, but lacks enough support for approval in the House.

COMPROMISE: Rep. Joe Hackney, an Orange County Democrat, has introduced a compromise that doesn’t block executions but calls for a two-year study. The bill passed a House judiciary committee Tuesday and is headed to the full House.

HOPES: House Republicans are united against both a moratorium bill and Hackney’s bill. They believe the measures are intended to help end executions in North Carolina.

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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