Pause on N.C. Executions Approved

A House committee Tuesday narrowly recommended a bill that would stop executions in North Carolina for two years while a commission studies the fairness of the death penalty.

The judiciary panel voted 8-6 in favor of the execution moratorium. Supporters argue it will give the state time to make sure a wrongfully convicted prisoner isn't put to death.

They contend recent high-profile cases, as well as a disproportionate number of black prisoners on death row, is cause enough for a two-year delay.

"It's not a question of whether or not the problems exist, because it's there, it's in your face," said Alan Gell, who spent six years awaiting execution before he was acquitted of murder last year.

Added Darryl Hunt, who served 18 years in prison before he was exonerated thanks to DNA evidence: "People do not understand how the bad the system is because you have never been there."

The bill will now go to the House for a floor vote, likely as early as Wednesday.

The proposal would create a 15-member commission of House and Senate members and appointees of the governor to examine whether suspects and convicts in death-row cases are receiving enough assistance from lawyers. The commission also would examine prosecutorial misconduct and whether race plays too great a role in capital cases.

The commission would be expected to deliver its final report to the General Assembly by mid-2008.

Former Forsyth County District Attorney Vince Rabil (search) said that a pause is needed despite legislative changes designed to promote fairness and reduce the chance for errors in death cases.

"These changes do not help many defendants already on death row who never had the benefit of these reforms," Rabil said.

The North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys (search) opposes the moratorium. Frank Parrish, the conference president, says the General Assembly could have studied the death penalty over the past few years without a pause on executions.

Dick Adams, a longtime victims' rights advocate from Pitt County, held up a photo of his son who was murdered in 1982. His son's killer, John Sterling Gardner, had 91/2 years before his execution to have dozens of judges review his case. Meanwhile, Adams said, the victims are often forgotten.

"Why do we have to be the first to be advocating for rabid killers?" he asked.

The committee vote was along party lines, with Democrats in the majority. People on both sides of the debate predict the full House vote will be close. House Minority Whip Mitch Gillespie (search), R-McDowell, said the outcome will depend on whether conservative Democrats are persuaded to support a moratorium.

"If they cave under pressure, it will pass," Gillespie said.

The bill still would have to pass the Senate. The chamber approved a similar two-year pause in 2003, becoming the first legislative body in the South to approve such a moratorium.

Gov. Mike Easley (search), a Democrat, is a death penalty proponent and repeatedly has said he sees no need for a moratorium.

There are 175 offenders on death row. Thirty-six people have been executed in North Carolina since the punishment was reinstituted in 1977.