In all eight cases, N.C. Gov. Mike Easley denied clemency for the death row inmates after meeting with attorneys and family members of both the condemned and their victims.
A Feb. 27 execution date has been set for George Franklin Page, who was sentenced to death in 1996 in Forsyth County Superior Court for the murder of Winston-Salem police officer Stephen Levi Amos.
The high volume of executions does not allow Easley adequate time to conduct a fair clemency proceeding, says Ken Rose, executive director of the N.C. Center for Death Penalty Litigation, a group that helps with the appeals of the state's almost 200 death row inmates.
When many execution dates are set in quick succession, Rose says the governor can't possibly have enough time to give each life and death case the attention it deserves.
"There's a momentum to them, and even a fair governor can't possibly step back and give fair consideration to that volume of cases," Rose said.
Recent cases that resulted in execution included "terrible stories of injustice," Rose said. "They didn't get the attention they deserved."
It doesn't have to be that way, Rose says. Easley has the power to grant a temporary reprieve in any case for any reason. He can delay an execution for a day, a week or six months, Rose says, to allow himself more time to decide clemency petitions.
"I don't have a sense that this governor has that [use of his reprieve authority] in his playbook," Rose said.
Easley's press secretary, Cari Boyce, says the governor takes his clemency duties seriously.
"I can assure you that the governor gives every clemency case that comes before him a careful and thorough review," Boyce said.
A careful review is not what Easley's providing, claims center staff attorney Gretchen Engel. In recent years, Easley has shortened his review process in several ways, Engel says. He refuses to meet with individual death row defendants or jurors. He has also shortened the time he allows defense attorneys to make their clemency pitch during meetings the governor hosts prior to each execution.
"How is it that he's providing complete review if he's spending less time on the review process?" Engel said. "He arbitrarily limits the information he is willing to review."
Stephen Dear, executive director of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, has also complained that Easley, unlike his predecessors, Jim Hunt and Jim Martin, refuses to meet with clergy groups who in the past have argued for clemency.
Last year's large volume of executions also prevented defense lawyers from having enough time to thoroughly investigate evidence in some cases, Rose said. "What we find in many of these cases is that there were last-minute issues that we didn't know about and no one knew about, that need to be investigated, and because of just the sheer numbers of cases that investigation is not happening in many cases," he said.
"It's frustrating for us," Rose said. "It takes a toll on our staff, and it also is unfair because it does not provide the necessary sense that we've unturned everything and we've looked at everything before someone is executed."
Rose said a better solution would be to halt executions and get a study in place to look at issues of basic fairness in how the death penalty is administered. Last year, the state Senate voted in a favor of a moratorium on executions while a study was conducted to determine if the penalty was being administered justly and free of biases. The measure was not taken to a vote in the House, but moratorium efforts are slated to continue this year.
Rose did have some good news. He doesn't expect a large number of execution dates to be set in the next few months. Several cases are being held up because the death row inmates have mental retardation claims pending, Rose says, and others are in federal court, but the appeals have not been exhausted.
That doesn't mean things won't change in 2004. Many inmates' cases are nearing final appeals in both the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond and the U.S. Supreme Court, Rose said.
"They could come out in bunches," he said.