In the midst of the floor debate over the death penalty moratorium last week, state Senate Minority Leader and would-be gubernatorial candidate Patrick Ballantine spoke against a hold on executions. A moratorium, Ballantine argued, would end up like the time-out on new hog farms in North Carolina, now in its sixth year and on track for another five. Once a moratorium is in place, he explained, it’s hard to get it lifted.

Ballantine’s comparison does have some validity: Both moratoria address the need to study well-documented problems until solutions can be found, and limit further damage in the process. But the analogy was not especially apt–human life and pig shit exist on different moral planes.

There’s another significant difference, one that reflects on those casting the votes. The Senate vote to impose a moratorium on the death penalty was a rare display of leadership from a body that ordinarily takes the path of no resistance on controversial issues. The recent vote by the General Assembly to extend the hog farm moratorium, while arguably useful, ignored a pressing emergency and essentially passed the buck.

The shock in the crowd assembled for the death penalty debate could not have been more pronounced when Senate leader Marc Basnight momentarily relinquished the gavel and announced his support for a moratorium. Just a day earlier, after a committee vote cleared the bill’s path, Basnight had indicated he would probably vote against it. “It’s these horrible people on death row that don’t need, in my opinion, this kind of support,” he said.

But, to his credit, Basnight admitted that he’d changed his tune after a sleepless night. A lifelong supporter of the death penalty, the Manteo power broker said that he had been swayed by the evidence and could not accept the possibility that an innocent person might be executed under his watch.

Though perhaps the most unexpected, Basnight’s conversion statement was not the only gutsy one of the session. Fayetteville executive Larry Shaw noted that he’d won office on a pro-execution platform but changed his mind after getting to know a death-row inmate who was executed despite troubling questions about his case. David Hoyle of Gastonia compared North Carolina’s capital punishment system to a lottery. Charlotte’s Dan Clodfelter admitted that his constituents had moved him away from opposition to a moratorium after two years of ongoing education. Republican Fletcher Hartsell, who brought up yet another flawed example of the death penalty’s administration, led a split of six GOP senators from their traditional party line.

And Majority Leader Tony Rand, whose strong support helped tip the balance, made impassioned speeches favoring the measure and pointedly rebutted the arguments of moratorium opponents, at one point shouting down an attempt by Burlington Republican Hugh Webster to seize the floor.

The facts certainly favored moratorium, especially the fresh revelations about Alan Gell and Jerry Hamilton, who both won new trials after judges recognized their strong innocence claims coupled with prosecutorial misconduct. In conjunction with clear evidence of racial discrimination, incompetent lawyers, excessive cost, random application and other systemic shortcomings, a moratorium didn’t seem like a huge leap.

But that doesn’t make support for the moratorium bill any less politically risky in a state where the majority of citizens still favor the death penalty in principle. Any sign of softness on crime has traditionally been exploited come election time, and it’s a safe bet that the next election cycle will see plenty of ad hominem attacks from the likes of Ballantine and Charlotte Republican Bob Rucho, whose defense of the status quo from the Senate floor was perhaps the most rabid. Voting yes was not the easy thing to do. But vote yes the senators did, 29 of them.

Contrast that action with the way the legislature has once again handled its sacred hogs. Shortly before its death-penalty vote, the Senate extended a moratorium on new or expanded hog farms (as with the moratorium on executions, the measure now moves to the House). During that debate, none of the senators stood tall and talked about how their hearts and minds had been changed by the facts. Thirty-nine of them sponsored the bill, which passed unanimously. None of those votes will be spotlighted in campaign attack ads.

The hog moratorium extension wasn’t a terrible thing. The state is still researching alternatives to the traditional waste disposal methods of hog lagoons and sprayfields that have proven so inadequate to protect the environment and local communities from water and odor pollution, with devastating results. The moratorium extension until 2007 will give researchers time to come up with suitable, cost-effective technologies.

But at the precise moment when the votes were counted, Eastern North Carolina was assessing damage from the worst round of hog-farm pollution since Hurricane Floyd. Heavy spring rains filled lagoons to the brink (in violation of their permits) and forced farmers to illegally spray waste onto their saturated fields. Runoff from wet fields flows into tributaries and then rivers like the Neuse, damaging aquatic life and posing threats to human health.

For several weeks, hog farm watchdog Rick Dove had been flying over hog farms in planes flown by volunteer pilots, photographing the wholesale dumping of waste. He had then been sending his evidence to the state Division of Water Quality and writing letters to legislators practically begging for action to force a stop to the pollution. Some of the responses were hostile: “Eat more pork!! It’s good for you and the economy of North Carolina!” suggested Iredell County Rep and hog booster Frank Mitchell.

Most others were blandly reassuring but failed to address the crisis at hand. Basnight aide Chris Dillon wrote that Dove’s complaints were being investigated. “Our office has a steadfast history of supporting the protection of our water resources,” Dillon stated. “We firmly believe that any alleged violations should be investigated extensively and prosecuted to the letter of the law.”

Dillon and his boss realize, however, that the state’s ability to investigate and prosecute violators has been crippled by budget cuts, not that it was ever a priority for regulators more concerned with issuing permits than enforcing them. The Fayetteville regional office, set in the heart of hog country, has only three people doing inspections, and two of those will be gone by the end of June. Complaints from citizens like Dove take days or weeks to check, often well after the water levels have subsided. In a recent letter, Division of Water Quality chief Alan Klimek acknowledged that his agency was short on manpower. “We do not have the resources to visit each site during this wet spring to verify the situation at each operation,” Klimek wrote.

Even when the state does catch violators, the punishments seldom amount to more than wrist slaps, inflicting winks and smiles more often than pain. Regulators have the authority to do more, Nowlin says, but “that is not an authority the state has ever been willing to use.”

Nowlin, Dove and others concerned about the effects of hog pollution want the ban on new hog lagoons and sprayfields to become permanent, with existing ones phased out over time. They want the legislature to give the Division of Water Quality the resources and teeth to enforce existing regulations. The moratorium extension, they say, fails to do more than hold the line, and that line is in the wrong place. “The moratorium [and other initiatives] have done nothing to put an end to this madness,” says Dove. “The public may believe the problem is solved/being solved, but nothing could be further from the truth.”

State Rep. Paul Luebke has introduced a permanent moratorium bill, and meager enforcement legislation is also pending. But both are destined to be killed, because ties to the hog industry in Eastern North Carolina–and the General Assembly–are old and deep. For Basnight senior aide Rolf Blizzard, it’s all in the family–his father owns a hog farm, and his wife is employed by the North Carolina Pork Council, an industry trade association (though Blizzard claims this has no bearing on his impartial consideration of the issues). Hog giant Smithfield Foods and its web of subsidiaries and contract farmers freely wield their considerable political clout. Former legislative kingpin and hog farmer Wendell Murphy, who is still active in the halls of power, sold his hog operations to Smithfield in 2000 and now sits on the company’s board.

The 29 senators who stepped forward and voted their consciences on the death penalty dropped a lot of jaws in the process, giving hope to the novel idea that North Carolina’s leaders can provide actual leadership. But the General Assembly’s typical, business-as-usual wallowing in its hog mess may provide a truer measure of their courage. EndBlock

Burtman can be reached at