Compromised anti-death penalty bill creeps through NC House
A revised execution moratorium bill was scheduled to go before the House Judiciary Committee I on Tuesday (July 12). The legislation drops language calling for a two-year suspension of the death penalty, instead allowing executions to proceed while giving superior court judges the power to stay executions if procedural problems are found.
The legislation has been renamed: ‘“Study the Death Penalty/Permit Executions During the Study Absent a Judicial Stay.’”
Rep. Joe Hackney, a Democrat from Chapel Hill who is the bill’s primary sponsor, said he expects the bill to receive support from the majority of the Judiciary I Committee, which he chairs. An earlier version of the bill passed the committee 8-6 in March, with committee member John Blust, a Republican from Greensboro, missing the vote.
‘“There have been some mistakes made in our court systems which involved an innocent person being on death row,’” Hackney said. ‘“We need to pause and make sure that what we’re doing is accurate correct and fair.’”
Similar legislation passed the Senate in 2003 but stalled in the House Judiciary I Committee and never received a full floor vote.
Co-sponsors of the bill include four Greensboro Democrats, Reps. Alma Adams, Pricey Harrison, Maggie Jeffus and Earl Jones. Harrison sits on the Judiciary I Committee with Hackney. Two other cosponsors of the bill, Rep. Martha Alexander, D-Charlotte, and Rep. Verla Insko, D-Chapel Hill, are also members of the Judiciary Committee.
Rep. Bonner Stiller, a Republican from Brunswick County who serves as vice chairman of the Judiciary I Committee, said he hasn’t read the revised legislation, but expects that he’ll vote against it, just as he voted against the earlier version. He said his fellow House Republicans are also unlikely to support the bill.
‘“I’m not opposed to studying or double checking any questionable case, but there are some cases where people don’t deny they did it,’” he said.
Stiller, a defense attorney, said he supports the death penalty and doesn’t want to see it suspended for capital defendants who are unambiguously guilty. He cited the case of slain Boiling Springs Lake police officer Mitch Prince.
‘“You had a police officer and a guy got out of his car, took his service revolver, and executed him,’” Stiller said. ‘“He was the kind of guy you would want to stop your child because he would just say, ‘Hey, you need to slow down a little bit.’ He was a deacon in his church. There’s a situation where the guy did it and everybody knows he did it because he was still firing the service revolver when the police arrived on the scene to arrest him. In my mind, in my heart, that guy deserves the death penalty. That fellow didn’t give Mitch an opportunity for a moratorium.’”
The revised legislation is designed to win over lawmakers like Stiller, who support the death penalty, but are somewhat sensitive to concerns that it isn’t always applied appropriately. Gone is the language prohibiting the state’s secretary of correction from setting a date for execution any sooner than two years after the legislation is passed. In its place, the bill states that in the two-year period a state committee studies the fairness of the death penalty, a superior court judge may issue a stay of execution following appeal by a capital defendant if the judge finds credible evidence that at least one of the following applies: factual evidence of innocence, prosecutorial misconduct, incompetent defense counsel, membership of a racial group that is disproportionately impacted by the death penalty and other factors.
Stiller said he expects the ‘“Study the Death Penalty’” legislation to sail through the Judiciary I Committee, where Democrats comprise the majority, but go down in defeat in a House floor vote because of opposition from conservative Democrats.
People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, an organization based in Carrboro, issued an e-mail alert on July 8 urging its members to call their representatives and urge them to support the bill.
‘“While [People of Faith Against the Death Penalty] and its partners in the North Carolina Coalition for a Moratorium would prefer a suspension of executions for two years, we know well that there are not enough supporters in the House to make a suspension a political reality,’” the e-mail alert reads. ‘“If pass the revised bill would represent one of the most successful state laws to halt executions in the United States, short of abolition.’”
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