Bill would provide for study of death penalty

By: - July 21, 2005 5:23 am

Richmond County Daily Journal

My House Judiciary I Committee passed a bill that would create a commission to study capital punishment in North Carolina.

This latest version is a compromise and stops short of a two-year moratorium on all executions. It permits a Superior Court judge in the county where the crime was committed to delay the execution date of a death-row prisoner – if it falls during the study period and fits certain circumstances.

The new version would set up a 15-member legislative study commission to look at a number of aspects of the criminal justice system. Legislators would have until early 2008 to finish the study. Opponents say this version is worse than the decisive two-year break in executions 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 any one of seven factors outlined in the bill:

n The inmate is innocent;

n 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;

n Errors were made by defense counsel in cases that predate recent state standards for defense lawyers;

n Race was a factor in the handling of the case;

n Execution would not be proportionate with punishments in similar cases;

n 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

n The inmate might not have gotten the death penalty if a life sentence had been available at the time.

Supporters of the study 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.

Allan 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 called into question the conviction of Rex Penland, who has been on death row for 11 years.

Superintendent’s race

The joint House-Senate committee examining the unresolved state schools superintendent race held its first formal hearing July 14.

The committee heard testimony and evidence and will make a recommendation to the entire General Assembly. Republican Bill Fletcher doesn’t believe the General Assembly should be hearing the case because the rules approved earlier this year by the legislature to handled contested elections shouldn’t apply retroactively.

The state constitution, however, clearly gives the legislature the authority to decide contested council of state races.

Building roads

The House gave its final approval July 13 to HB 254. The bill would allow the state to issue transportation bonds financed with federal transportation money.

These Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicles, or GARVEE bonds, are generated based on federal highway dollars expected to flow to the state in future years. An analysis found North Carolina could issue about $950 million in GARVEE bonds in 2007 and 2008 and pay it back over 13 years using $1.25 billion in principal and interest generated from federal transportation dollars the state is projected to receive during that period.

This is a way to perform road improvements quickly and at less cost, and contrasts with the traditional pay-as-you-go construction. More than a dozen other states already use the procedure, which Congress authorized in 1995.

Airplane protection

The House approved SB 428, which would increase penalties for anyone intentionally pointing a laser beam at a traveling aircraft in North Carolina.

An offender of this crime would now be guilty of a felony rather than a misdemeanor if the bill becomes a law. Federal research has shown laser illuminations can temporarily disorient or disable a pilot during critical stages of flight.

The Patriot Act, which was passed by Congress, already makes it a federal crime.

Gang activity

Law enforcement agents across North Carolina are aware of more gangs and members than five years ago and are doing more to combat them, reports a study by the Governor’s Crime Commission.

The study reported 387 gangs in the state with 8,517 members last year, which is up 68 percent when compared with police responses from a 1999 questionnaire. It is not clear how much those numbers signal a rise in gang membership and how much is attributed to police better recognizing gang activity.

Many police agencies are now reporting and tracking gang-related crimes better than in years past. The House Select Committee on Gang Prevention has made several recommendations on prevention of gang activity.

The House budget included $3 million in grants to prevent gang violence.

Budget update

House members were hopeful last week that they could reach an agreement with Senate members on the budget prior to next week’s deadline.

A few details remain unresolved and negotiations are continuing.

The House and Senate must reach an agreement on a revenue package and a roughly $17 billion spending bill.

n Rep. Melanie Wade Goodwin (D-Richmond) is a first-term legislator from Hamlet. Contact her by e-mail at [email protected]; by telephone in the district at (910) 205-0464 or toll-free at (866) 488-0464; or in Raleigh at (919)733-5823.

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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