Death penalty opponents across the country are watching the North Carolina General Assembly. A group of representatives plan to introduce a bill this month calling for a two-year suspension of executions to study problems in the capital punishment system--and it has a good chance of going to Gov. Mike Easley for his signature. Whether the governor will sign it, however, is a matter of concern.
Last April, the Senate passed a bill calling for a moratorium on executions, but it died in a House committee without going to the floor for a vote.
That the issue has gone this far puts North Carolinians at the forefront of a movement recognizing that the criminal justice system is broken, says Shari Silberstein, co-director of the Quixote Center, a nationwide social justice group that works for death penalty moratoriums.
"North Carolina is one of the most prominent examples of grassroots democracy at its best," he says. "People are getting organized and speaking up ... It is one of the most excellent examples of how ordinary citizens can come together to make change."
The grassroots momentum is fueled by a 40-year tradition of groups working together to spread public awareness about the death penalty, says Stephen Dear, executive director of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty. Across North Carolina, the movement has led to resolutions calling for a death penalty moratorium in 35 cities and counties--including Durham, Cary, Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Charlotte, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Fayetteville, Asheville and Durham and Orange counties. The resolutions express support for a halt to executions and send a message to representatives to do the same.
The resolutions make North Carolina an anomaly in the South, which includes nine of the 10 states with the most executions; North Carolina is ranked seven.
"A state, a red state, stopping executions would be symbolically enormous," Dear says. "It would really be a watershed moment in the movement to stop executions."
Currently, only Illinois and Maryland have called for a moratorium on executions to study the capital punishment systems in their state. In both cases the governor, not the legislative body, initiated the moratorium.
If a moratorium on executions were passed by the General Assembly, executions would be halted and a study would look into disparities in the system. The bill approved by the Senate last session listed several areas of concern about the death penalty: possible prosecutorial misconduct, costs of the system, discrimination in sentencing, discrimination due to location of the crime, and adequacy of counsel. During a moratorium on executions, juries could still hand out death sentences and none of the 181 death row inmates would be exonerated.
However, opposition to such a study is expected. Sen. Hugh Webster, R-Alamance, says capital punishment is needed to provide closure to victims' families and deterrence for others. Webster says the goal of a moratorium on the death penalty is not to fix the system, but to abolish capital punishment altogether.
"That's what it's all about," Webster says. "There is no such thing on this earth as a perfect or flawless system. We do the best we can."
Webster says the state would be better served if executions were left untouched but the language associated with the system--the use of words such as "punishment" and "penalty"--was removed. He says the system would be better named "capital elimination."
"I don't want to punish 'the guy.' He probably had a poor background. He was probably abused..." Webster says. "I don't want to punish him, but the rest of us have a right to live on this earth without him."
Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, D-Orange, who sponsored the Senate bill last session, says the criminal justice system needs to be reviewed. "We need to step back and find out what's truly the best way to carry out this criminal justice system," Kinnaird says. "We need to find out how the system is functioning. We have to have a study and that's our prime purpose."
While the House bill is expected to look similar to last session's bill, the makeup of the General Assembly is notably different. There are numerous new members in the legislature and there is no longer a co-speaker system in the House, which many people point to as the reason the bill was never brought to the House floor.
In his acceptance speech in the opening session, Speaker of the House Jim Black mentioned his support for a moratorium on the death penalty.
"Over the past few years we have read many headlines about death penalty convictions being overturned," Black says. "I believe we need to review and reform our death penalty laws and protocols."
Dear says he expects the bill's most serious opponent to be Gov. Mike Easley who has veto power to kill the bill if it passes the General Assembly. Unlike Black, Easley has not spoken in favor of a moratorium on executions.
"The governor supports the death penalty and does not see a need for a moratorium at this time," Sherri Johnson, press secretary for the governor's office, said via e-mail. "If a bill is passed in the General Assembly, the governor will give it careful review."
As the bill goes forward this month, all eyes will be on North Carolina.
"When a [Southern] state halts executions," Silberstein says, "that means a lot more than a state that doesn't have a historic tie."