Momentum for a moratorium

North Carolina Senate passes halt on executions

By: Liliana Segura and Doug Lee

At the end of April, the North Carolina Senate passed a bill that would impose a two-year moratorium on capital punishment while the General Assembly studied the system. Abolitionists celebrated this huge victory that they have been fighting to win for years. But unfortunately, the state House closed out the summer session on July 20 with the moratorium legislation languishing on its agenda. The decision will be deferred until next summer's legislative session.

For activists, the delay is both good and bad. On the one hand, it represents a frustrating slowing of momentum from April, when the Senate passed the moratorium bill by a 29-21 vote. On the other hand, support for the bill in the House was, according to Democratic sponsor Paul Luebke, inadequate--and defeating the legislation would have meant that a moratorium bill would not be eligible for consideration for another two years.

Legislation to stop the death penalty in North Carolina has been blocked eight times before, and many would have bet against the Senate's passing of the bill this time around. But the all-too familiar tales of attorney incompetence, prosecutorial misconduct and racism in the delivery of death sentences have begun to turn the tide--changing the minds of such politicians as Democratic Speaker Jim Black, who went from opposing a moratorium to supporting one.

An even greater testament to North Carolina's growing alarm at the egregious nature of the death penalty, however, is the magnitude of support for this moratorium by ordinary citizens, stirred up by ongoing grassroots organizing. More than 1,000 North Carolina business, religious communities and other groups have signed resolutions in support of the measure. Twenty-one local North Carolina governments have passed resolutions as well; and 35,000 state citizens have signed petitions. Also, thirty-seven North Carolina newspapers have called for a moratorium over the past few years.

Nationally, a moratorium in North Carolina would be a huge victory for abolitionists. Only Illinois currently has a moratorium on executions, though Maryland's Supreme Court effectively halted executions with a decision that came shortly after the state's new Republican governor officially lifted a moratorium imposed by his predecessor.

North Carolina's top officials were all too eager to see the vote on the moratorium delayed. In June, Attorney General Roy Cooper decided to retry an innocent prisoner from Bertie County whose death sentence was overturned last December due to glaring holes in the conviction. The move was a blatant attempt to dampen further support for the moratorium. More recently, in Richmond County, a man named Jerry Hamilton was removed from death row after it was revealed that prosecutors had withheld crucial evidence of his innocence--not surprising given the prosecutor's reputation for celebrating death penalty convictions by bestowing golden lapel pins in the shape of a noose to his staff.

The coming months will be crucial for mobilizing support for the moratorium bill if it is to pass the House--or get past the desk of Gov. Mike Easley, a former attorney general and prosecutor and an outspoken opponent of the moratorium. The fight is far from over.