The mood was tense at the General Assembly on June 1. Backers of the two-year moratorium on the death penalty were expecting a vote in the House on a bill that would halt executions for two years while the fairness of the death penalty system is studied. The votes to pass the measure weren’t there, however, and House Speaker Jim Black sent the bill on to the Appropriations Committee, saying the cost of the moratorium study would have to be factored in, a procedural move that allowed the bill to be exempt from the crosssover deadline, which requires that a bill pass in one chamber or be killed. Estimates are that the moratorium has only 57 or 58 sure votes with 61 needed for it to pass.

Ken Rose, who has been director of Durham’s Center for Death Penalty Litigation for nine years, said it’s likely some compromises will have to be worked out, but he still thinks a version of the moratorium bill can pass.

The bill passed a House judiciary committee, 8-6, on May 31, and Rose says the moratorium got a shot in the arm from the testimony of former Forsyth County District Attorney Vince Rabil, a man who has played a role in winning numerous death sentences. Rabil told the House a moratorium was needed.

Rose said Rabil’s assertion that there are “substantial problems with the death penalty” is compelling. “For this career prosecutor to say this is startling, to say the least. I’m surprised that’s not gotten more attention.”

Rep. Joe Hackney of Chapel Hill, primary sponsor of the moratorium bill, agreed with Rose that a compromise will be necessary to get the bill passed.

“I think we’re very close, and some of the votes are fluid, so I don’t think it’s a fight to be abandoned,” said Hackney, a lawyer in his 25th year in the House. “We have some drafting going on to try to come up with something that would be acceptable, that might swing votes. We haven’t given up.”

Hackney would not say specifically what the changes would be, but Rose said moratorium backers may have to settle for legislation that protects some individual death row inmates, not all, from execution while the study is conducted.

“I would prefer, and I certainly think it’s the best way to go, to pass a blanket halt to executions while we’re considering these reforms, because we don’t know how broadly they will apply,” Rose said. “On the other hand, if we can apply the protections to some people, it’s better than nothing. I’m a realist, and I think if we can save some people, it’s better than saving none.”

House Speaker Jim Black, a strong supporter of the moratorium, surprised some people when he suggested that a death penalty study be conducted even if the moratorium fails, an option that would likely have more backing in the House.

Steve Dear, executive director of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, said conducting a study while executions continue is not the will of the people.

“It takes the wind out of our sails,” he said. “So many people across North Carolina–so many ordinary people and prominent people–have said we need to stop executions and study, not just have the study. It’s disappointing that [Black would] settle for a study.”

Dear urged citizens to contact Black and other anti-moratorium legislators and urge them “to work hard for the suspension of executions.”

Moratorium opponents have said there are already enough protections in place to keep an innocent person from being executed, but backers say the study would go far deeper than merely looking at claims of innocence. Issues to be addressed in the study would include:

  • The inadequacy of trial lawyers
  • Whether death sentences are truly being given to the so-called worst of the worst
  • Why there is an increased likelihood of a death sentence for cases involving white victims
  • Prosecutorial misconduct

    The moratorium was passed in the Senate in 2003, but the measure died in the House. Should it pass in the House this time, Sen. Vernon Malone said it may not have as easy a time passing again in the Senate.

    “I think it has a difficult road to travel to get it out of the House because, as you may recall, there was not a great deal of rejoicing in the Senate when it passed over there,” Malone said. “We have some new faces in the Senate now. I’m skeptical about its chances. I’m not overly optimistic that we’ll get a moratorium out of this session.”

    Many people believe the moratorium is really a strategy to abolish the death penalty, Malone said, and he’s also doesn’t think Gov. Mike Easley would sign a moratorium bill.

    “The governor, before he became governor, was a prosecutor who spent his whole life trying to put people on death row,” Malone said, “and I suspect he’ll be hard-pressed to sign it into law. I’d be pleasantly surprised if he did; I’m just not overly optimistic that he would sign it into law.”

    Malone, 72, who is African-American, said if Easley vetoed moratorium legislation, “It would indeed be an affront to African-American members of the General Assembly” and to African-Americans citizens “who were very strong supporters of Easley in the last election, [but] I don’t sense that would make a lot of difference to him.”

    Malone also said there is “clear evidence” that mistakes have been made in capital cases, “and it troubles me that there are those who in spite of that would say that the system is working well and we ought to go forward.

    “It’s almost inhuman. It is barbaric to think that there are people in this state and particularly in the General Assembly who would not want to be absolutely sure to err on the side of life, particularly in light of the fact that many of the same people are vehemently opposed to abortion and to stem cell research. I have a hard time reconciling where they come off on all this stuff. I really do.”