This has been quite a week for opponents of the death penalty. First and foremost, ardent death-penalty supporter Jim Hunt granted clemency to death-row prisoner Marcus Carter just 11 hours before the state was scheduled to kill Carter at Central Prison.
The same day, a legislative study commission recommended that the General Assembly adopt a moratorium on executions in North Carolina until the flaws in the system can be corrected. The commission's recommendation is not law, and the moratorium still faces an uphill battle when the General Assembly reconvenes in late January, but it is no small feat that a legislative committee believes we need to stop killing people in North Carolina, at least for a while.
Also last week, the Winston-Salem Board of Aldermen became the latest local government to pass a resolution calling for a moratorium, joining Charlotte, Greensboro, Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Durham, among others.
Hunt said he thought Carter was guilty, but did not receive a fair shake in the criminal justice system. Carter had lawyers representing him at his first trial that ended in a hung jury. At his retrial, Carter begged the judge to appoint new attorneys to represent him after his attorneys barely spoke to him between the two trials. The judge refused. Carter represented himself and was found guilty and sentenced to death.
Opponents of the death penalty always believed that Hunt would only consider clemency in cases of possible innocence. While there is a question about Carter's guilt, it was an unfair trial that caused Hunt to spare his life.
Hunt has refused clemency appeals from other death-row prisoners who clearly had unfair trials, cases in which prosecutors lied or withheld evidence. Those men died. Carter is alive, and Hunt deserves credit for that.
It is hard not to also credit the momentum for a moratorium on the death penalty for helping Hunt see the flaws in a system that discriminates against people of color and people without means. It is distorted by prosecutors who bend and break the rules. It might take the life of an innocent person; it might already have done so. And polls now show that a majority in North Carolina support a moratorium.
In spite of it all, Governor-elect Mike Easley still doesn't get it.
He ignores the fact that he was elected on the backs of the largest African-American turnout in years. The same black leaders who helped turn out the vote for Easley and his fellow Democrats want executions stopped in North Carolina because they know the system is racist.
He told The News & Observer that Hunt's decision to pardon Marcus Carter won't make any difference in the moratorium debate.
But Hunt's statement that Carter did not get a fair trial goes to the heart of the moratorium movement. Most people who believe in capital punishment also believe in fairness. Many also believe that under Easley, the Attorney General's office has moved from the Department of Justice to the Department of Conviction and Execution.
How else can you explain Easley's decision to continue to oppose a stay of execution for Russell Tucker, scheduled to die on Dec. 7, even though Tucker's own attorney now admits he wanted Tucker to be executed and sabotaged his case?
How else can you explain Easley's decision to continue to seek to kill Charles Munsey when his office knew that the entire case against Munsey was based on an alleged confession that Easley's office knew was not true?
Either Easley doesn't know what's been going on in his own A.G.'s office or he doesn't care. The people know and they care. A legislative committee knows and it cares. Even Jim Hunt may finally know, and Marcus Carter is proof that he cares.
When will Mike Easley know, and when will he care?