One day in the 1940s, a young St. Augustine College professor named John Hope Franklin walked up on the aftermath of car accident in downtown Raleigh. When two white police officers arrived on the scene and saw that the accident involved African Americans, they said, "Just a couple of niggers" and left. That incident "gave me the impression that miscarriage of justice was a very common kind of thing" and that what happened to blacks was inconsequential, says Franklin, now a prominent Duke University historian who is backing a two-year moratorium on executions.
With a showdown looming in the General Assembly, supporters of a moratorium are getting as many supporters on the record as possible for a vote that could come this month. The measure passed the N.C. Senate two years ago, but has never been taken up in the state House.
Franklin made his comments Monday at a Raleigh press conference in which Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, media mogul James Goodmon, former Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation head Thomas Lambeth, novelist Doris Betts, and Self-Help Credit Union CEO Martin Eakes added their voices to the effort to suspend executions while the state engages in a study to determine if the ultimate judicial punishment is being imposed fairly and impartially.
The six are among a group of more than 150 prominent North Carolinians who signed a letter to Gov. Mike Easley, Sen. Marc Basnight and Rep. Jim Black backing the moratorium effort. Letters from former UNC basketball coach Dean Smith and N.C. State basketball coach Herb Sendek were read aloud at the press conference, as well as a letter from Richard T. "Stick" Williams, chairman of the UNC Board of Trustees.
Franklin says "serious miscarriages of justice" often occur in capital cases.
"In our society, with the problem of race being what it is, the problem of inadequate legal representation being what it is, we need to step back and have a look at the whole administration of justice," he says.
Marshall, who is a criminal lawyer, said the state's criminal justice process "is a human process" and "human frailty is an element of human process."
Marshall says "errors are fairly obvious to many of us" in the administration of the death penalty. If the death penalty "were a product," Marshall says, "and there were as many variables and now substantiated errors as there are in the capital process, there would be a manufacturers' recall."
Marshall says the case of Alan Gell, a former death row inmate who was later found innocent, "has given us ample reasons why North Carolina should step back and do serious evaluation, research, dialogue" regarding the death penalty process. "We should do nothing less than the two-year moratorium."
Goodmon, chief executive of Capitol Broadcasting Co., said he didn't know why anyone would oppose the suggestion that the death penalty simply be studied for two years to assure fairness.
"This shouldn't get into whether you're for or against the death penalty," he says. "We as North Carolinians, we have the death penalty. All right, if we have the death penalty, then we've got to do it right. That's what we're talking about here. ... I think everybody wants this system to be just whether you're for the death penalty or not. I honestly don't know what the argument is about. All we're saying is we want to make sure we're doing this right."
Supporters note that the moratorium would not change the status of those already on death row, and during the moratorium period new murder cases could still be prosecuted as capital cases.
Eakes says the death penalty is often influenced by the wealth or race of a defendant's parents. "The level of justice that you receive should not be related to the resources that your parents happen to have or determined by the color of your parents," Eakes says.
Betts says she was a former "strong supporter of the death penalty when I had a lot more confidence in the infallibility of the legal system than I do now. ... I cannot believe that even those who favor it, as I once did, can object to looking at how we enact it and what it is doing to the fabric of our society."
Lambeth says the moratorium campaign "is about the soul and the spirit of this state. We have to do it right. When the death penalty is imposed, they're doing it in the name of all of us."
Durham lawyer David Neal of the Fair Trial Initiative was the emcee at Monday's press conference, which urged the backing of the moratorium in House Bill 529.
Neal says it is fortunate that Speaker of the House Black backs the moratorium effort, but he is uncertain when the bill will come to the House floor.
"I believe that we're going to have the votes to pass it when it comes to the floor," Neal says.
Should the measure pass both chambers, it would still have to be signed into law by Easley, a strong death penalty supporter.
"I don't have any assurance that he would sign it, but I have no reason to think that he would veto it either," Neal says.
Among those signing the letter were former UNC basketball player Phil Ford; public radio hosts Terry and Joe Graedon; numerous former judges; Independent Weekly columnist Hal Crowther; Duke Professor Ariel Dorfman; UNC Chancellor James Moeser; novelists Elizabeth Spencer and Lee Smith; and former Duke trustee Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans.
Franklin says the death penalty must be foolproof.
"We can't make a mistake in a capital crime," he says. "We simply cannot. Life is much too precious for that."