With the image of Saddam Hussein's hanging fresh in the public mind, the House Select Committee on Capital Punishment met in Raleigh last week to hear testimony about whether our state, too, should continue to execute murderers, and if so, which ones.
In North Carolina, of course, executions aren't conducted with a rope at dawn, nor are they videotaped for public consumption, as was the case when the Iraqi regime hanged Saddam—reportedly so that the Iraqi public would know for sure he was dead. Here, executions are conducted on a gurney at 2 a.m. in front of just a handful of official witnesses, and they employ a method of lethal injection that may seem to be more humane but isn't necessarily so, according to David Work, retired head of the state pharmacy board.
Work noted that Florida Gov. Jeb Bush last month suspended executions in his state after the same lethal mix of three ingredients that North Carolina uses failed to finish off convict Angel Diaz for more than half an hour. In that case, the final, killer ingredient wasn't injected accurately into the convict's veins, and had to be re-administered. Meanwhile, Diaz was probably in excruciating pain, since the anesthetic put in first is fast-acting and doesn't last, Work said.
"It's only a matter of time before the same thing happens here," Work told the committee.
In California, meanwhile, the prospect of such botched injections caused a federal judge to impose a moratorium on executions in that state too, saying they run the risk of violating the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments.
Here, though, a recommendation that the General Assembly impose a moratorium on executions will not come out of the House committee, said Rep. Paul Luebke (D-Durham), a member and moratorium proponent. Luebke said the committee does not consider the issue within its charge, which is to weigh the accuracy and fairness of the state's capital punishment statutes.
Luebke said a moratorium bill will be introduced separately in the House.
Three years ago, the state Senate passed a moratorium bill, but the House let it die when its backers saw that it was a few votes short of passage. Neither body took up the issue during the 2005-06 legislative term. Whether it stands a chance in the upcoming session isn't clear, but Rep. Joe Hackney (D-Orange), a proponent and one of the committee's co-chairs, sounded doubtful when asked about it by the Associated Press.
Carnell Robinson, chair of the N.C. Black Leadership Caucus, was more than doubtful. He said bitterly that the committee's work "is a waste of money, and some of us on the street are embarrassed by it," since the House simply will not act.
He said Gov. Mike Easley should create his own study commission and halt executions in the meantime using executive authority.
"I worked on the LeGrande case," Robinson testified, "and what we call justice in this state—it's pathetic."
Convicted murderer Guy LeGrande's execution in Raleigh, scheduled for Dec. 1, was put off by a judge while the question of whether he is severely mentally ill is studied.
Most of the testimony before the House committee covered familiar ground. Moratorium proponents argued that, while the state is more careful now about providing capital defendants with competent lawyers and about sparing the lives of the mentally ill and retarded, most of Central Prison's death-row inmates were convicted before such safeguards were in place.
They were also convicted before juries were given the alternative of a life sentence without parole for first-degree murder, said Thomas Maher, director of the N.C. Center for Death Penalty Litigation. As a consequence of these reforms, just five murder trials here resulted in death sentences last year, versus as many as 20 a year previously, Maher said.
He also pointed to the recent conclusion of a New Jersey commission that there's no way to write a capital punishment statute and rule out the chance that innocent people will be executed.
Perhaps so, countered the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League of N.C., but it is "the command of God that man be given the power to execute" even if that power "will never be administered by a flawless judicial system." Creech cited several Bible verses.
The Rev. Scott Bass, also a Baptist minister, had a different view of what a higher power might want. Bass, who helped start Raleigh's Nazareth House, an anti-death-penalty center, said it's wrong to punish killing by more killing. All it accomplishes, Bass said, citing his ministry to several death-row families, is to traumatize the killer's kin during the years between trial and a possible execution in the same way as the victim's family was traumatized by the crime itself.
Bass followed Shirley Burns, the mother of convicted killer Marcus Robinson, who is scheduled to die in Raleigh on Jan. 26. Robinson was 18 in 1991 when he and another man robbed and killed a 17-year-old high school student in Fayetteville. Robinson's lawyer argued at his trial that the other man, who got a life sentence, might've pulled the trigger.
Burns said she remains opposed to capital punishment, and is asking Easley to commute her son's sentence, even though her older son, Curtis Green, was himself murdered in Cumberland County last April. (Three people are charged in Green's death, one with first-degree murder.)
"How many have had to sit on both sides of the table?" Burns asked the committee. "Here I am pleading, begging for my son's life ... how can I ask for somebody else's life?"