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Domino effect

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The 30th anniversary of a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the death penalty came and went this weekend, amid swirling headlines about two recent high court decisions that opponents of capital punishment say could prove just as important.

Thirty years ago on June 29, the Supreme Court issued an opinion in Furman v. Georgia that declared the death penalty to be "cruel and unusual"--and unconstitutional. That ruling forced states to rewrite their capital punishment laws.

On June 20 of this year, the high court struck down the execution of people with mental retardation. The justices were influenced by the number of states that have banned executions of the mentally retarded--30 states in all, including North Carolina. The court also ruled that juries should make findings of fact in death sentencing, not judges.

Just days after those rulings, New York City became the 73rd municipality nationwide to call for a moratorium on executions while concerns about fairness are studied. The governors of Maryland and Illinois have already imposed a ban on executions in their states amid questions about racial and geographic bias in death penalty cases. In North Carolina, 19 local governments have signed resolutions supporting a moratorium--among them, Carrboro, Cary, Chapel Hill, Durham, Hillsborough and Orange County.

Is there a domino effect underway? "No matter how you look at it, our death penalty system is a gross failure and more and more people recognize that fact," says Stephen Dear, executive director of Chapel Hill-based People of Faith Against the Death Penalty.

A complete list of moratorium bills and resolutions is available at http://www.quixote.org/ej.

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