Death penalty opponents claim almost two-thirds of North Carolinians support a moratorium on executions. To date, 22,000 Tar Heel citizens have signed a petition calling for a halt until flaws in the system can be studied. But in the North Carolina General Assembly, the number of moratorium supporters is far lower.
To combat that disparity, moratorium backers converged on Jones Street April 17 to lobby their representatives to vote for moratorium bills that have been introduced in the state House and Senate. More than 200 people attended, many coming by charter bus from western North Carolina.
Organizers want the public to take a long-haul approach to passage of a death penalty moratorium. During a rally at the North Carolina Museum of History, speakers urged the crowd to keep up the pressure on lawmakers.
"I want to implore you to please not make this your last trip to the General Assembly to demand a halt to executions," said Chris Fitzsimon of the Common Sense Foundation. "[Your representatives] don't think you'll be back. They think you had a lobby day and you'll disappear. We can't disappear. We must be here in some way every day."
A study released last week by the foundation and the N.C. Council of Churches adds fodder to the debate. The survey of capital cases in North Carolina found that murderers whose victims are white are 3.5 times more likely to be sentenced to death than defendants whose victims are non-white.
The study has been criticized by a UNC-Chapel Hill mathematician who claims it contains fundamental statistical errors--a challenge denied by the report's authors. But some numbers don't need statistical analysis. Since the state began administering the death penalty in 1909, more than 75 percent of those executed have been people of color, and more than 60 percent of the inmates currently on death row are non-white.
"Far too many innocent people have died in the name of justice in this state and it's all because of racial injustice," said rally speaker George Allison, executive director of the state NAACP--which also supports a moratorium.
While the votes may not be there now, a movement to ultimately abolish the death penalty is on the horizon, said Steve Dear, head of the Chapel Hill-based People of Faith Against the Death Penalty.
"We have been addicted to the death penalty," he told rally participants, "and our addiction has blinded us to the widespread evidence that our death penalty system is awash in racial bias and targets the poor instead of the worst offenders."
Two days after the legislative rally, death penalty opponents got some good news when a Gaston County judge granted a stay of execution to longtime death-row inmate Larry Darnell Williams, who was scheduled to die April 27. Like Ernest McCarver, who was also granted a stay last month, Williams' attorneys argued their client has mental retardation. The U.S. Supreme Court recently agreed to hear McCarver's case to decide whether the law should prohibit the execution of those with mental retardation. In North Carolina, a bill to ban such executions has passed the state Senate.