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A time to speak 

There seems to be some question whether the proposed moratorium on executions in North Carolina, approved by the state Senate, will even get a vote in the House before the General Assembly adjourns for the year.

What a shame if it doesn't.

People opposed to the death penalty, or opposed to the scattershot way it's applied, deserve a vote. But so do those who support the death penalty. They deserve to hear it defended, in principle and in practice, if it can be.

Unless a majority of the House is willing to stand up and be counted in favor of capital punishment--as practiced--surely we will know that it's time to stop and think about what we're doing in the name of justice.

But the House won't vote on the moratorium bill, apparently, unless Co-Speakers Jim Black and Richard Morgan both agree to bring it to the floor. Black, a Democrat, supports the bill; Morgan, a Republican, doesn't. Regardless, both should do the right thing: Vote their own conscience, and let every House member vote theirs. Otherwise, they'll leave our state in the abominable position of continuing to execute prisoners when neither house of our legislature will vouch for it.

Morgan was quoted by the Associated Press as saying that House members are tired after the budget battle and want to go home. If that's true, they should read the transcript of the Senate's moratorium debate (www.pfadp.org). It would remind them how invigorating it can be to cast that tough vote after a lot of reflection and soul-searching.

Most senators are pro-capital punishment, as are--the polls say--most North Carolinians. But listen, for example, to Sen. Dan Clodfelter, a Charlotte Democrat. He's always believed, Clodfelter said, that some horrible, terrible crimes warrant the ultimate punishment. But it was an "unexamined" belief. "I kept my distance from the consequences of that belief."

Pro-moratorium constituents got Clodfelter to face the consequences, and he didn't like what he saw. The machinery of death was unfair, and it was unreliable. Only a tiny percentage of killers are executed. The "worst of the worst," as capital punishment's defenders like to say? No, just the poorest and unluckiest, Clodfelter realized--and even at that, North Carolina has come dangerously close to executing people who were later shown to be innocent.

"It's not that the system has worked," he said. "It's that we've been lucky. ... I don't want to be lucky on this issue. I want to get it right."

The opponents of capital punishment, and we are among them, don't think it's possible to get it right--to mete out death only to the "worst" killers without succumbing to our fears, our biases, or--as in several recent cases--to deceitful police and prosecutors who've concealed exculpatory evidence.

We trust, however, that those who favor the death penalty do want it to be fair, rational and mistake-proof. Thus, 70 percent of North Carolinians, in one poll, said they favor the moratorium and the two-year study it would trigger. Many, obviously, see this as a chance to save capital punishment, not abolish it. They, as much as we, will be cheated if the House adjourns without voting the moratorium up or down.

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