The three cases moving fast toward the death chamber raise very different issues. Taken together, they demonstrate how capital punishment in North Carolina can be biased, misguided or–in the Hunt case–could result in the mistaken execution of an innocent man. (Based on information from lawyers for the defendants and the Center for Death Penalty Litigation.)

Henry Lee Hunt
Convicted in 1984 of two murders in Robeson County.

Hunt has always claimed to be innocent and has passed two lie detector tests. The only physical evidence tying him to the crimes is a Kool cigarette butt (his brand) found at one of them; but it’s never been tested for DNA until now–Hunt’s lawyers got a court order last week. Almost everyone who testified for the prosecution–including several witnesses since proved to be lying–was either involved in the murders themselves or had other reasons to pin the crimes on Hunt. One of them was arrested after one of the murders, failed a polygraph and then confessed to the crime, but later changed his story and fingered Hunt instead. Scheduled to be executed Sept. 12.

Joseph Bates
Admitted killing Charles Jenkins in 1990.

Bates thought Jenkins, whom he’d never met before, was plotting to kill him along with Bates’ ex-wife and her lover. The victim of head injuries from a car accident, Bates is paranoid and delusional, according to mental health experts. He’s attempted suicide twice in prison. Four of his jurors now say they’d have considered a life sentence had they known of his mental illness–which, because of incompetent trial counsel, they didn’t. Scheduled to die Sept. 26.

Eddie Hartman
Killed Herman Smith in Northampton County; convicted in 1994.

At trial, the prosecutor repeatedly referred to Hartman’s homosexuality, including sarcastic comments to the jury dismissing testimony that Hartman was sexually abused by two different male relatives when he was 8 and 11 on grounds that, “well, he was gay, wasn’t he?” Hartman’s jury voted to execute him after rejecting childhood sexual abuse as a mitigating factor to be considered in his sentencing.