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Time for a moratorium

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(Editor's note: This week The Independent continues its effort to show the human faces behind the debate over the death penalty. One of the most important recent analyses of the death penalty was done by the Common Sense Foundation, which found that many death-row inmates were represented by attorneys who were inept or worse. What follows is the foundation's call this week for Gov. Mike Easley to declare a moratorium on executions while questions of fairness are examined. We strongly concur.)

Just before Thanksgiving, State Supreme Court Justice I. Beverly Lake Jr. announced he was creating a special task force to reduce the risk of innocent people being sent to prison.

Attorney General Roy Cooper announced a plan Monday to reduce the massive backlog of rape kits that have not been DNA tested.

Just a few weeks ago came the report that one in six current death row inmates was represented at trial by an attorney who has been singled out for disciplined by the state bar. More than a year ago, state officials completely overhauled the way lawyers are appointed for defendants who cannot afford to hire their own attorney.

Reform of the criminal justice system is North Carolina is churning away and Lake, Cooper and others deserve credit for responding to public outcry about problems with solid solutions to address them.

Through it all though, there is one constant. The attorney general's office continues to try as hard as it can to execute the men and women on death row, the ones with lawyers who were convicted child pornographers, the ones with lawyers who were getting drunk every night of their trial, the ones whose lawyers were denied crucial evidence by the prosecutors.

The ones like Ernest Basden, sentenced to death for his role in a murder, while the man and woman who planned the crime escaped the death penalty. Basden's lawyer was suffering from leukemia and left the case before the trial, but the court denied the new lawyer's request for more time to prepare a defense.

The ones like Desmond Carter, an African American sentenced to death for killing a white woman in a case where an African-American juror says he questions the role of the race of the victim in the sentence.

The attorney general's office may be part of the Department of Justice, but it continues to function as if it is in the Department of Execution. The attorney general's job is to uphold the law and protect the public, not simply to rabidly seek the harshest possible punishment in every case.

Nothing it seems can deter the blind pursuit of execution. Innocence should not be the only issue. Neither should DNA, or providing competent lawyers. Easley must grant clemency to Basden and Carter, but that's not enough.

As long as the attorney general's office continues to rush to execute in its blinding cloud of single-mindedness, the people of North Carolina cannot have confidence in the capital punishment system. Until that confidence is restored, there should be no more executions.

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