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Deadly injustice

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The facts are so clear, the unfairness so apparent, the results so barbaric: Why does Ann Miller Kontz, who systematically, cold-bloodedly poisoned her husband--injecting the final dose into his IV while he was in the hospital--live, while Steven Van McHone, who shot and killed his mother and stepfather in a drunken rage, became the third person to be executed this year in North Carolina?

There is no consistency in the punishment of murderers in North Carolina except for this: The poor ones, the ones who are assigned incompetent lawyers and tried by prosecutors who have no regard for their rights, are much more likely to be put to death.

Ann Miller Kontz had two of the best lawyers in the state--Wade Smith and Joe Cheshire. They managed to work out an agreement for Miller Kontz under which she pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and would serve 25 to 31 years in jail. Steven McHone had one of the worst--a man named Terry Collins, who has since been disbarred. Collins failed to investigate, gather evidence and argue effectively that McHone was so intoxicated he couldn't have been guilty of premeditation and deliberation, both necessary to be convicted of first-degree murder. It didn't help that prosecutors withheld evidence that would have made the extent of McHone's intoxication clear. And here's the clincher: According to McHone's appellate attorneys, Collins never approached the state about reaching a plea agreement. Maybe that had something to do with the fact that he was being paid by the hour, and going to trial insured a bigger paycheck. That cost a man his life.

What greater evidence do we need that the death penalty is unequally applied--that anyone who can afford a lawyer is much less likely to be executed than an indigent defendant who depends on the state for representation?

In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that state death penalty statutes across the country were invalid because they were being applied so arbitrarily, so unevenly, it was "cruel and unusual" punishment.

Today, the laws have been changed, but the death penalty is just as unfair--applied by a justice system that won't acknowledge money makes a huge difference in a defendant's defense and punishment. North Carolina came close this year to recognizing that, but the legislature balked at instituting a moratorium on executions while it was studied further. As a result, Steven Van McHone died last week and Ann Miller Kontz may be a free woman when she's 60 years old.

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