South seeks death-penalty pause
Though the region backs capital punishment, a growing number of cities worry that it is administered unfairly.
RALEIGH, N.C. — Known as an unabashed supporter of the death penalty, the deep South might seem an unlikely lobbyist for an effort to temporarily halt executions.
Yet Dixie is exactly where a new debate has caught fire over the ultimate sanction. From Atlanta to Greensboro, N.C., a growing number of Southern communities - most in North Carolina - are calling for broad stays of execution until allegations about botched death-row defenses are probed.
Make no mistake: The death penalty remains a cornerstone of Southern-style justice. Seven executions were scheduled in the United States for this week - six south of the Mason-Dixon Line, and three in Texas alone.
On Tuesday, Texas broke the record for number of people executed in a state in a year since the US Supreme Court brought back the death penalty in 1976.
Moreover, many of those now calling for a moratorium in the South are conservatives who support the death penalty but are bothered by recent revelations about how it has been applied based on factors such as race, wealth, and even nationality.
But as vigilant as they are about punishing the guilty to the full extent of the law, many Southerners now seem equally ready to put fairness over ideology.
"Here in the South, because of our strong religious beliefs, we do believe in an eye for an eye, but we also believe as strongly in fairness, equity, and justice," says Rod Autrey, a city councilor in Charlotte, N.C., who led that city's call in September for a two-year moratorium on executions. "We want to be sure that this ultimate penalty is administered fairly."
The calls for moratoriums are nonbinding, because state lawmakers and governors oversee the capital-justice system. But state officials are certainly perking up their ears at the noise coming from cities and towns.
In fact, while more than 700 civic groups, bar associations, and churches have called for a moratorium, it's the word from local elected leaders that has caught the attention of state legislators here and elsewhere.
Towns in tough law-and-order states - such as Atlanta, Charlottesville, Va., and Rollingwood and Hays, Texas - have approved moratorium resolutions. Nine cities and town in North Carolina have passed them. One failed by a single vote in El Paso, Texas.
Illinois this year became the first state to implement a moratorium - 13 of its death-row inmates had been exonerated or granted new trials in recent years. But that move was ordered by the governor. North Carolina may become the first state to bring the debate into the legislature.
Bucking tough traditions
The speed with which the moratorium movement has caught on in the South has surprised many observers.
"If somebody had mentioned two years ago that there would be a moratorium bill, I would have thought it might have garnered three votes somewhere," says Rich Rosen, a law professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "Now it's possible that it will pass in both houses if it comes up for a vote."
The move comes as 64 percent of Americans support the death penalty - the lowest percentage since 1973. "The American people are saying, 'Hold on a second. If the system by which we're sentencing people to death is not fair, then we ought not to be sentencing anyone,' " says Peter Loge, director of the Justice Project, a reform group in Washington. "It seems anomalous that the movement would have a lot of strength in North Carolina, but the fact is that the South has been proud of its dedication and commitment to establishing justice."
North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt (D), however, says North Carolina's system works just fine.
"He believes our system is fair and just, and he also believes that, while he has been governor, not one innocent person has been executed," says Tad Boggs, Governor Hunt's press secretary.
Other death-penalty advocates say the recent exonerations of death-row inmates in Illinois and several other states prove that the system works. Hunt himself exonerated a North Carolina death-row inmate last month, changing the sentence to life without parole because of concerns that the inmate, who represented himself, didn't get a fair trial.
Mr. Autrey, the Charlotte city councilor, says more people should be on death row, but he adds that the problems with the system are unmistakable.
For one, elected judges and district attorneys in North Carolina and other Southern states aren't allowed to stake their campaigns on partisan issues. So the way they make a name for themselves is in the courtroom, often through handling a capital case.
Incompetent counsel is also rife, a Columbia University study claims. "In one case, we had a death-row inmate who ran into his attorney in prison," says Mr. Loge."The lawyer had been sent up for possession."
Moreover, Mr. Rosen says many African-Americans have had fewer resources to mount death-row defenses than whites - a reality that strikes hard in the South's increasingly powerful black enclaves.
Beef up death-row defenses
Experts say that the Tar Heel General Assembly could look at spending more money on capital cases in rural counties. Minimum standards for death-row defense lawyers are also being discussed.
To some, the general lack of outcry against the movement is surprising. "Even three years ago ... there would have been a completely different public reaction with much angrier crowds," Rosen says. "Now it's a completely different scene."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society