2-year study better than moratorium

By: - July 20, 2005 5:30 am

Wilson Daily

The proposed two-year pause in executing death row prisoners in North Carolina is at once heart-felt and mischievous. A compromise measure now before the House is a wiser response to an acknowledged problem.

The problem is that some jailed people have been declared not guilty after years of living in cells located just down an echoing corridor from the state’s execution chamber. They were wrongly convicted of a capital crime and only were exonerated by new evidence or the rise of DNA technology.

The real problem is that no one knows for sure how many innocent people have been executed for something they didn’t do and how many others on death row face the same fate.

It is a haunting thought. It also is an insidious one that threatens to undermine the justice system.

Proponents of a two-year moratorium on executions are honestly motivated by concerns about wrongful conviction of individuals. Their concern about injustice justifies their push for a moratorium.

However, opponents of the bill also are justified to resist enacting a moratorium. While they presumably are no less concerned about injustice, they do worry more about maintaining the overall system of justice.

They are right to worry.

Removing execution from the system alters the whole hierarchy of penalties. If the ultimate punishment — loss of life — cannot be inflicted by society, the structure of lesser punishments also must be reworked.

For unless penalties are adjusted upward to fill the vacuum at the top, crime and punishment no longer are in balance.

A moratorium would not produce such a vacuum, of course, unless it were made permanent — which seems to be the whole idea. Permanent removal from the books of the death penalty is precisely what some moratorium backers want. They see a pause in executions as a first step in banning executions altogether.

This is why a proposed two-year examination of courtroom conditions and practices in capital cases is a better half-step toward reform. While executions would continue, if under more stringent conditions, an exacting and urgent look at courtroom justice could be undertaken in the glare of wide publicity.

The moratorium campaign is said to be about fair and just courtroom procedures. The next two years can be devoted to examining that issue in great detail. The case for and against capital punishment can be made another day.

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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