The death penalty is now the hottest public issue in North Carolina that you won't hear a word about on the campaign trail. None of the leading candidates for statewide office are opposed to capital punishment. And few candidates are willing to take a stand on a growing push for halting executions until serious flaws in the system can be addressed. Although North Carolina leads much of the nation in the pace of executions, the bipartisan party line on the subject seems to be "the death penalty's not an issue here." Begging to differ, The Independent asked candidates for statewide office to discuss the idea of a moratorium on executions, the shifting public sentiment on capital punishment and their own positions on the death penalty. Here's what they had to say:
Mike Easley, Democratic candidate for governor: "While I do not believe a moratorium is warranted in North Carolina, I supported the creation of the death penalty study commission and look forward to the group's findings and report. As a prosecutor, I handled several brutal first-degree murder cases where the facts made it appropriate to request the death penalty and where the jury voted unanimously to impose it. I know first-hand the gravity and finality of capital punishment. I have never used it as a political issue, and any politician who suggests the death penalty will solve the problem of violent crime isn't shooting straight. The key to fair imposition of the death penalty is a fair trial."
Richard Vinroot, Republican candidate for governor (by way of campaign manager Chris Neeley): "[Vinroot] sees the system the way it is, is working. He supports the death penalty and does not support a moratorium. People who are talking about the moratorium are people who oppose the death penalty. Richard is not going to govern by polls. People are entitled to different views on different issues. Richard's position is that he supports the death penalty."
Barbara Howe, Libertarian candidate for governor: "The death penalty is one of my three major issues. I've held the position for a long time that I'm against it, and after I won the primary, I sent a letter to Easley and Vinroot saying the three of us should agree we'll have a moratorium in North Carolina and not make this a political issue. It used to be political suicide in North Carolina to oppose the death penalty. But there's been a change in public sentiment. The facts demonstrate that we execute innocent people. And the philosophy of Libertarianism is that you don't exert force to bring about policy. If I were elected, I would immediately start commuting death sentences. That would effectively end the death penalty for my term."
Catherine Carter, Reform Party candidate for lieutenant governor: "I think we should not have a death penalty. I think it's horrible. There are obviously very dangerous criminals that need to be put away. But they don't need to be put to death. I know the victims of crimes, especially vicious crimes, they want vengeance. But there are other ways, through mediation and restorative justice that are getting incredible results."
Betsy Cochrane, Republican candidate for lieutenant governor: "I support the death penalty for certain heinous crimes to which it is appropriately applied. I would be interested in what the [legislative] task force is evaluating. I'd like to know how long they're going to take with a moratorium and what criteria they will use [for ending one]. I haven't had anybody raise this issue or ask where we stand. People are interested in education, a good economy, older people being taken care of and a road system that works. They're interested in people who commit crimes being off the streets so that our neighborhoods, schools and shopping areas are safe. This isn't a difficult issue unless the media makes it one. I don't see a problem out there."
Beverly Perdue, Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor (by way of campaign communications director Billy Warden): "Senator Perdue supports North Carolina's death penalty. Senator Perdue also supports a credible, thorough defense for any person facing a death penalty trial. As [House] Appropriations Committee co-chair, she has supported increased funding over the last five years to the state's indigent defense fund" to help poor defendants get legal help.
Henry Frye, Democratic candidate for state Supreme Court: "I'm not taking a position one way or the other on the issue. We just take each case as it comes before us. As judges, we don't want to focus on the wrong thing. In every case, I focus on whether the person has been tried correctly. I want to be sure that people are convicted in accordance with the law. This is a difficult enough issue without getting into a political debate about it. We have to focus on doing our job."
Beverly Lake, Republican candidate for state Supreme Court: "It's terrible that we have to apply a punishment like that to anybody. But it's the law of the state and as a constitutional officer, I'm duty-bound to carry out the law. We do it, I think, fairly. We haven't seen any sign in North Carolina that we have anything like the problem they have in Illinois or some of the other states where they have correctly placed a moratorium because the system is broken. Our is not. I think we have a very good system of safeguards in place."
Dan Boyce, Republican candidate for attorney general: "I didn't enjoy the death penalty cases I worked on, and I hate that we have to have a death penalty. But the reality is, the death penalty has been declared constitutional. When I become attorney general, I will have to take an oath to uphold the Constitution and the laws of North Carolina. As I look at it, I don't have a choice. That being said, I'm concerned about the failures in our system. We've got to do everything possible to make sure that what happened in Illinois doesn't happen in North Carolina. I will not allow cases to go forth where prosecutors have cheated or where prosecutors have hidden evidence or not played by the rules."
Roy Cooper, Democratic candidate for attorney general: "I support the death penalty as an appropriate punishment for the very worst of crimes. It should be administered fairly, and I will certainly pay close attention to the report from the legislative study commission. The death penalty is one component of an overall strategy to fight violent crime. I think it's important that we have swift and sure sentences, and also that we emphasize prevention in the early grades, which I've worked on hard in my term in the General Assembly. I don't think there's evidence there at this time for me to support a moratorium. I will keep that as an option when we receive the report of the study commission."
Margaret Palms, Reform Party candidate for attorney general: "I very much support a moratorium [on executions]. My feeling about the death penalty is that it's neither a deterrent to crime, nor does it save the taxpayers any money. I feel strongly about this issue, particularly since I'm from Texas. Observing the way Gov. George Bush has handled executions, it's just atrocious. I'm happy to see there are movements afoot to put a halt to that."