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The momentum for death penalty reform is stronger than ever before, but state politicians are avoiding the next move.

Sudden Death 

The momentum for death penalty reform is stronger than ever before, but state politicians are avoiding the next move.

On a chilly weekday evening, as the lights in most Raleigh office buildings are dimming, the headquarters of the North Carolina Academy of Trial Lawyers remains bright. A fundraiser for Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Mike Easley is in full swing, with guests mingling noisily around a small bar and cloth-covered tables heaped with hot hors d'oeuvres.

The party continues even after the candidate has wrapped up his speech and is doing some last-minute hand-shaking in the parking lot. Easley hustles into his car and drives off toward Oberlin Road just as members of the Wake County Coalition for a Moratorium Now are arriving for their regular twice-monthly meeting. They glance briefly at the departing Attorney General, and at the party-goers on the first floor of the building, then head upstairs to a conference room to get down to the evening's business: building support for a movement to halt executions on North Carolina's death row.

The near-miss with Easley elicits more than a few smiles from the half-dozen artists, attorneys and academics at the meeting. It's a reminder of the contradictory environment in which moratorium organizers find themselves working these days. At a time when the death penalty is being hotly debated in the public arena, the state's leading politicians--including many who are firm supporters of capital punishment--are studiously avoiding the issue.

"The biggest challenge we face is getting politicians to recognize that this is an issue that people care about," says Wake County coalition member Richard Cook, who works as a corporate attorney in Cary. "Right now, it's far below their radar screens."

In most years, that wouldn't be surprising. But the buildup to this fall's election season has been marked by a slew of media and legal investigations that have sparked growing public doubts about the fairness of capital punishment. Given the public ferment, politicians' quiet support for the death penalty is more than a political dodge. It places candidates in opposition to a growing movement for change. And with North Carolina picking up the pace of executions after a respite of nearly a year, the stakes on both sides of the issue are high.

Surveys show the majority of voters still support capital punishment. But new research has revealed that many are becoming increasingly concerned about the reliability and fairness of the system. A recent national poll by leading Democratic and Republican Party survey firms found a whopping 80 percent of voters favored reforming or abolishing the death penalty, while 64 percent supported suspending executions until questions about fairness can be resolved. In North Carolina, almost two-thirds of those polled last month by The Charlotte Observer backed a moratorium on executions. The newspaper's survey accompanied a series of reports that showed Tar Heel citizens are more likely to be sentenced to death if they are poor, non-white or living in a rural area.

Fueled by accounts of a punishment system that is random and full of mistakes, the moratorium movement has caught fire in recent months--both nationally and in North Carolina. Since January, when Republican Gov. George Ryan of Illinois suspended executions in his state because of errors in more than half of death penalty convictions there, moratorium efforts have been launched in 20 other states.

North Carolina is out in front. The Tar Heel state boasts a hefty portion of the 32 local governments across the country that have passed resolutions favoring a halt to executions. During the past year, governments in Carrboro, Chapel Hill, Durham, Orange County, Hillsborough, Davidson, Charlotte and Greensboro have called on the General Assembly to suspend executions. Next month, a moratorium vote will be held in Asheville, and organizers in Wake County aim to bring the issue to the Raleigh City Council in February.

In addition to local governments, more than 100 North Carolina churches, businesses and individuals have signed onto the moratorium drive. "It's been a snowball effect," says Stephen Dear, director of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, the Chapel Hill-based organization leading the statewide push. "Suddenly, this has become a vital social issue that people are grappling with and all the things that our movement has been saying for decades are being taken seriously."

Despite the heightened activity at the grassroots level, the death penalty issue has yet to register in North Carolina's political sphere. One key reason is that none of the leading candidates for statewide office--including Easley and his Republican gubernatorial challenger Richard Vinroot--oppose the current system of capital punishment.

Unless confronted directly, few candidates will voluntarily discuss the death penalty and few, if any, debate moderators or reporters have bothered to ask about it. (In the final town-hall-style debate in the presidential race last week, George W. Bush got momentarily rattled when a member of the audience asked him whether he was proud of the number of executions he's overseen as governor of Texas. Bush seemed shocked that the issue was even being raised. "No I'm not proud of it," he mumbled. "I take my job seriously.")

When they are asked about their stance on a moratorium, many North Carolina candidates prefer to sidestep the issue, deferring to the yet-to-be-determined results of a legislative study commission on the death penalty. (See "What they're saying," page 23.) State Sen. Frank Ballance (D-Warrenton), who is co-chair of that commission, says he's been trying to convince his colleagues for years that citizens are open to reforming the state's capital-punishment laws. "Politicians are, in many instances, trying to make sure that they are not too far behind or ahead of where people are on this issue," he says. "My own view is that many politicians are behind where the public is right now."

The exceptions to the prevailing don't-ask-don't-tell approach are third-party candidates such as Libertarian gubernatorial hopeful Barbara Howe, who early on urged her rivals to join her in supporting a moratorium on executions. Margaret Palms, the Reform Party candidate for state attorney general, and Catherine Carter, the party's pick for lieutenant governor, are also vocal opponents of capital punishment. But neither has made the issue a leading plank in their campaign platforms.

More disturbing to death-penalty opponents than the lack of political discussion of the issue is the fact that after a hiatus of nearly a year, the state is again scheduling executions--the first slated for just days after the general election. Michael Earl Sexton is set to be executed in Central Prison on Nov. 9, Marcus Carter on Nov. 22, and Russell William Tucker on Dec. 7. The last death sentence carried out in North Carolina was Nov. 19 of last year, when Dawud Abdullah Muhammad was executed by lethal injection for a double murder in Pinehurst. He was the 15th person to be executed since the state reinstated capital punishment in 1977.

Moratorium supporters say the post-election timing of the latest executions is designed to keep the issue from becoming a topic of public debate. "The powers that be in North Carolina have withheld scheduling executions all year and throughout the election campaign season, which has been a time when the administration of the death penalty has come under increased public criticism," says Dear of People of Faith. "Now, they've scheduled an execution within hours after voters leave the booths because they don't want to face that criticism."

Attorney General Easley's office is responsible for notifying the state Department of Correction when any one of six legal requirements for carrying out a death sentence has been met--including when a death row inmate fails to meet deadlines for filing appeals or when a conviction is upheld by a higher court. A spokesperson for Easley denies that politics played a role in the latest execution dates. "We don't sit down and say, 'OK, Michael Sexton, let's choose him.' That's not how it works," says Cari Hepp. "There is a statute in place. When one of those [triggering] events happens, we just follow normal procedure."

But Sexton's lawyers say they were surprised by the timing of the 33-year-old Wake County man's execution, since a potential triggering event--an affirmation of his sentence by the state Supreme Court--came and went last October. In the meantime, "we filed motions for discovery and were in the process of evaluating that discovery when we received the execution notice from the state, says attorney Irv Joyner, who teaches law at North Carolina Central University in Durham. "There's just no rhyme or reason to this date."

Whatever the reason the state's death penalty machinery is suddenly cranking up again, some moratorium supporters say the fact that it's been at a standstill until now proves that politicians are far less eager than in past years to draw attention to their support for capital punishment.

"For the first time, this issue has become a double-edged sword," says Ken Rose, director of the Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation. "Four years ago, politicians were campaigning on the death penalty. Now, they're silent on it. That reflects to me more than anything else that the ground on this subject has shifted."

Tom Smith has been studying that ground for nearly three decades as director of the General Social Survey at the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center. And he's a witness to change.

"There's no question that the huge rise in support for the death penalty that began in the 1960s has now reversed," Smith says. "From 75 percent of people supporting the death penalty, it's dropped to more like 60 percent or even in the high 50s." African Americans are still far less supportive of capital punishment than whites, and women remain moderately less supportive than men, Smith says. But the national consensus in favor of death sentencing that has existed for years is now eroding across the board.

Why? The statistical evidence points to a decline in the murder rate, Smith says. As crime rates have fallen and the resulting fear of crime has decreased, support for the death penalty has ratcheted down. But there are also indications that in the past year, growing doubts about the certainty of death penalty convictions have helped accelerate that downward trend.

And there are good reasons for doubt. A recent state-by-state review of death penalty cases by researchers at Columbia University found that two-thirds of appealed death penalty convictions were sent back to the courts because of serious legal errors--including prosecutors who hid evidence friendly to the defense. The percentage of the 218 death penalty cases appealed in North Carolina between 1977 and 1995 were sent back at a rate slightly higher than the national average.

Evidence of racial bias in the system is also making headlines. Last month's investigative series in The Charlotte Observer found defendants who kill whites in the Carolinas are three times more likely to get the death sentence than those who kill blacks. Of the 215 people now on death row in North Carolina, more than 62 percent are non-white. And many, like Sexton, were sent there by all-white or nearly all-white juries. The Raleigh-based Common Sense Foundation has commissioned a study of all capital cases in the state between 1993 and 1997 to determine if race was a factor in determining when juries gave life or death sentences. The results are expected early next year.

While candidates for statewide office in North Carolina have yet to seriously address the death penalty issue, concerns about the system are becoming harder for policymakers to ignore. In Illinois, the specter of journalism students at Northwestern University exposing evidence that innocent people had been sent to death row--evidence that had somehow evaded lawyers and judges--helped push the pro-death-penalty governor to declare a moratorium on executions. In Washington, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has introduced "The Innocence Protection Act," a bill that would set minimum standards for defense counsel, grant death row inmates access to DNA testing and compensate people who are unjustly imprisoned for murder and other crimes. Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) is also sponsoring a measure that would halt all federal death sentences, pending a review of their application.

In North Carolina, state Sen. Ellie Kinnaird (D-Carrboro) says she plans to reintroduce a bill calling for a moratorium on executions in the Tar Heel state during next year's General Assembly. A similar measure died in committee last year. "I really doubt the political climate has shifted much," says the liberal Orange County lawmaker. "What has happened is that we've strengthened the hand of those who believe [suspending executions] is the right thing to do. We hope it will give courage to people in the middle, and that they'll be hearing from their own folks on this issue."

For longtime opponents of the death penalty, the idea that capital punishment is racist, classist and is imposed on innocent people is hardly news. But the combination of new research and amplified media attention to those arguments has helped heighten public awareness and forge a new consensus for change.

"There's a recognition now that it's unavoidable that the criminal justice system makes mistakes, and if we continue with the death penalty, there's no way we're not going to be killing innocent people," says Richard Rosen, a law professor at UNC-Chapel Hill who testified last month before North Carolina's legislative study commission. "The American public has always liked the idea of the death penalty more than the reality. The real change in the last few years has been in people's attitudes about the death penalty and the possibility of doing something different."

The groundswell for a moratorium began building in 1997, when the American Bar Association called for a halt to executions until serious flaws in the administration of the system could be fixed. The following year, Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago hosted a conference on wrongful convictions that threw a spotlight on the 75 people who'd been released from death row since 1973. That number has now climbed to 88, including three from North Carolina.

The gathering also led to the creation of "innocence centers" at more than a dozen schools aimed at ferreting out other wrongful convictions. Two such centers at Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill formed last year have recently merged under the umbrella of the Center for Actual Innocence.

Pete Weitzel, a former managing editor of The Miami Herald who is the new center's volunteer director, says law-school and journalism-school students are now sifting through the hundreds of handwritten notes and typed complaints they've received from North Carolina inmates in order to identify cases to pursue.

"We're really not in position to go into court and raise legal arguments," Weitzel says. "What we can do is go back and look to see if there is anything that was overlooked the first time around.

"When you look at the record of what has happened, particularly in cases involving the poor who cannot afford [legal] representation, there's often been little or no investigation of the facts," he adds. "What we're trying to do is provide, as best we can with the resources we have, some help in seeing if there is a basis for saying, 'if this case had been fully and properly investigated, would they have found evidence of actual innocence?'"

The focus on innocence has quickly transformed the moratorium idea from a principled stand by criminal-justice system insiders to a grassroots movement of congregations, municipal leaders, business owners and citizens. With 90 percent of the nation's executions occurring in eight Southern states, national organizers say, the region is a key battleground. Like the Nuclear Freeze movement of the 1980s, moratorium supporters are aiming first at community organizations and local governments as the building blocks to gaining passage of state and national legislation.

"Death penalty cases are prosecuted at a local level and it's local tax money that pays for them," says Jane Henderson, co-director of the Maryland-based Quixote Center, which is tracking the national moratorium movement. "North Carolina is an example of a state where that approach has really been working--where there are real alliances being built across lines that are often polarized."

That's certainly been the experience of moratorium organizers in Charlotte and Greensboro, who've been pleasantly surprised that some of their most vocal champions have been conservative municipal leaders who believe in the death penalty.

In Charlotte last month, Mayor Patrick McCrory vetoed an initial council vote in favor of a moratorium on executions, then set about recruiting crime victims and other death-penalty proponents to help defeat an override. But the override measure passed by a final vote of 8-3 on Sept. 5.

City Council member Rod Autrey, who supports capital punishment, was one of those who spoke in favor of a moratorium. "I personally think we have fewer people on death row right now than we should have," says Autrey, a Republican who is up for reelection next year. "This hadn't been a burning issue for me. But when the [moratorium] group came before city council and laid out information about the process in North Carolina, it was apparent to me that we have a system in place that you cannot look at and say fairness and equity is the benchmark."

Charlotte organizers say the mayor's vehement reaction to the initial council vote helped rally more support for their cause. "For the average person, the death penalty really isn't in their circuit," says Ted Frazer, a retired salesman who is heading the Queen City's moratorium organizing group. "Only after the mayor got mad and said, 'we're going to debate this' did it become a real issue that our community had to look at."

In Greensboro, the moratorium vote was much less contentious, passing by a landslide of 8-1 on Oct. 3. Again, crucial support came from council members who back the death penalty. The resolution passed even though the vote occurred during the closing days of a high-profile trial for the murder of a local record-store owner who was tied up, injected with Windex and alcohol, then stabbed to death.

Greensboro organizers say their campaign succeeded because the notion of a moratorium offered middle ground on an issue that had previously been fiercely divided territory. "There were several members of the city council who wanted to make it clear that they didn't vote for the moratorium as a vote against the death penalty," says the Rev. Frank Dew, who chairs the Greensboro chapter of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty. "I think what the moratorium is saying is that people who are for the death penalty and people who are against it are coming to a broad agreement that something is wrong with the system. That's got to be the focus for winning."

In Wake County, organizers are hoping their efforts will cast a similarly wide net and help boost the chances that a moratorium resolution will be passed by a conservative-dominated Raleigh City Council. To that end, overtures are being made to prominent business leaders such as Jim Goodman, head of Capital Broadcasting, who has reportedly signed onto the moratorium drive. Goodman didn't return calls from The Independent.

Organizers are also reaching out to leaders of the city's African-American communities, who have long been concerned that black defendants are unfairly targeted for death sentences. Such recognition is key to gaining the support of community activists like Kamau Kambon, owner of Blacknificent Books. "The issue of race is really the linchpin for all these other issues," says Kambon, who is backing the moratorium campaign. "It's something that many people are in denial about. But when you see people on death row, you have to know that the problems that led them there started long ago in their lives."

The Wake County drive has also been helped by the work of the state's legislative study commission, which last month expanded the scope of its agenda to include expert testimony on the need for a death-penalty moratorium. The committee was formed during the previous legislative session to review two bills that failed to gain passage: one that would bar executions of defendants with mental retardation and another that would allow courts to set aside capital convictions based on race.

Commission co-chair Ballance, who sponsored the latter bill, known as the "Racial Justice Act," says discussion of a death-penalty moratorium was a natural progression, given rising public concern about the issue. "If you're talking about the death penalty, you're talking about racial justice," he says. "The public also knows there is a problem out there with innocent people on death row. I've been trying to tell my colleagues for years that there's not as much support [for the death penalty] out there as they think. Now they're hearing it from the experts."

But questioning of those experts by some study commission members shows the moratorium effort still faces long odds when it comes to the political arena.

"Give me the name of one person on death row today that you believe should not be there," state Rep. Rick Eddins (R-Raleigh), demanded of one panel speaker at last month's commission meeting. "Can you provide the governor with a list of those names?"

When the expert said he'd be glad to, Eddins jumped in again. "If we get the governor involved and look at these cases, why do we need legislation? There are plenty of things we can do without changing the [death penalty] laws."

It's not clear how many local resolutions will need to be passed or how many cases of wrongful death penalty convictions will need to be exposed before politicians are willing to let go of their long-held support for the status quo. Many state legislators are more interested in expanding existing evidence-gathering procedures than in halting executions. Others disagree that the weight of evidence proves the state's capital punishment system is broken.

Even those who say they willing to hear debate on a moratorium will do so only on limited terms. "Where I live and walk and talk and listen to people, they are still in support" of the death penalty, says Senate President Marc Basnight (D-Manteo). "I'll listen to the moratorium [idea] and the reasons behind it. If this is an effort to scrutinize some cases that are questionable, I'd look at that. But if it's just a blanket policy, even for those who have admitted their guilt, or an effort to remove the death penalty period I would not support it."

Moratorium backers are well aware of the obstacles they face. "Unfortunately, our political system has a history of politicians taking a long time to catch up with what the people want," says Chris Fitzsimon, director of the Common Sense Foundation and a member of the Wake County drive. "But we will have a debate on the death penalty in the General Assembly this year. The fact that local governments are passing resolutions in places like Charlotte shows that once people sit down and take a look at the system, they realize it's not working even if they believe in it."

Whether moratorium organizers will be able to capitalize on growing public support for their cause remains to be seen. For Francinia Norwood the stakes in believing that things will change--and soon--are very high.

Every other weekend, Norwood drives from her Rocky Mount home to Raleigh to visit her son, Lorenza, who's on death row for setting a fire that killed a convenience store clerk in 1993. The younger Norwood, whose IQ is in the 60s, confessed to setting the fire after he and the clerk, Walid Al-Hourani, argued over the price of a bottle of wine. Al-Hourani then smashed him on the shoulder with a baseball bat. Despite expert testimony about Norwood's mental retardation, and evidence that he'd been egged on by a cousin who is now serving time in a Maryland prison for assault, the 30-year-old was sentenced to death.

Seated in a booth at a Wendy's not far from Central Prison one Saturday afternoon, Francinia Norwood remembers how surprised the family was when her son's sentence was pronounced. "We went in and told the truth and we got this," she says, gazing out the smeared restaurant window at an invisible horizon beyond the bright flow of traffic. It's hard to accept that her impressionable son, who had turned himself in and talked to police, was given a death sentence. By contrast, his cousin--who refused to talk to police, hired his own lawyer and accepted a plea--got 15 years. "What it means is that money and lying will get it" when it comes to the court system, Norwood says.

While she's pleased to see momentum building for a moratorium on executions, she wonders how far the efforts will go. No one in her community is signing petitions or bringing resolutions before municipal leaders. Few people she encounters even want to talk about the death penalty.

Norwood hears an invisible clock ticking for every day that the state's capital punishment system is still up and running. Her greatest hope is one shared by other death-penalty opponents: that the move for a suspension of executions will lead to a debate over how to fix the state's capital punishment system--a debate that will ultimately show that the system can't be fixed.

"I believe in people being punished for what they do, but not to take someone's life," Norwood says. "It's good that more people are caring about this now. I pray that it does end, if not in my time and my son's time, then in somebody else's." EndBlock

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