North Carolina Death Penalty Moratorium: Is It Really About Fairness and Innocence?

Last year, the North Carolina State Senate voted 29-21 to support a two-year moratorium on executions. The House failed to take up the measure in the General Assembly's last session, making it necessary for moratorium proponents to have to reintroduce it in both chambers next year.

Despite the fact this is a matter only state government can decide, local governments are getting in on the act by calling for a pause in executions. City commissioners in Creedmore, North Carolina, recently passed a resolution for a moratorium. So have 22 other local governments, including the cities of Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Chapel Hill, Durham, Charlotte, Asheville, and Thomasville.

Behind this frenzy to instate a death penalty moratorium in North Carolina, are death penalty abolitionists and the media, who have used the recent release of death row inmates Daryl Hunt and Alan Gell, as a means of creating unnecessary fear regarding the death penalty issue. While most North Carolinians support capital punishment, the exoneration of these two men has caused many to consider the possibility the system is flawed and needs fixing. These concerns, however, are largely based on distortions.

It helps to understand the groups leading the fight for a moratorium and supplying the "statistics" are opposed to the death penalty in principle and have no genuine interest in reforming the system. Their objective is to completely abolish capital punishment. The moratorium is simply an incremental step in that direction. One needs only to look at the websites of organizations like the ACLU, the Death Penalty Information Center, the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, Amnesty International, and People of Faith Against the Death Penalty to see this is the case.

For years now, opponents of capital punishment have been unable to convince the public that the death penalty is an inappropriate response for crimes so atrocious no other punishment will suffice. So they have taken a new approach by shifting to a utilitarian argument about fairness. Specifically, they have sought to persuade the public that capital punishment will lead to the execution of many innocent persons.

Of course, arguing society must protect the innocent from execution is more appealing than insisting the death penalty is wrong for even the worst of crimes. Certainly no one wants to see an innocent person put to death. Nevertheless, regardless of all the media hype, the overwhelming majority of capital cases contain no credible evidence of innocence. In fact, most death row appeals are not even based on claims of factual innocence.

One study by the anti-death penalty group, the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), claimed that 114 "innocents" have been exonerated from death row since 1973. That 114 number, however, doesn't represent actual innocence. Only 32 of the 114 claim actual innocence and of those 32, only 12 were cleared through DNA evidence. This amounts to only 0.4 percent of those sentenced to death that we can confidently say were innocent. The facts show the vast majority of death row releases are based on legal technicalities, not real innocence!

Moreover, the entire contention about "innocence" rests on the notion there is actually some evidence innocent people are being executed. This is nonsense! There is no such evidence anywhere -- not even a single case of an innocent execution! The innocence question is simply disingenuous propaganda. Let's not forget that for opponents of capital punishment, regardless of the nature of the crime or the certainty of the individual's guilt, there is no such thing as a fair execution.

Another part of the "fairness" argument offered by death penalty opponents is the claim that racism puts more minorities on death row. But these claims completely ignore the most recent research. Recent studies reveal white murderers are twice as likely to be executed as black murderers and are also executed 15 months more quickly than blacks on death row. A 1991 RAND Corporation study and a 1994 Smith College study, as well as a review of murderers within capital circumstances, reveal the foundation for being sentenced to death is the crime itself.

What is more, death row defendants receive more due process than any other. They receive a trial by jury, direct appeals, post-conviction relief reviews, and state and federal habeas corpus proceedings. It can take as long as 12 years or more before a death row inmate is executed. In fact, because there are far less appeals available in cases where only life imprisonment is at stake, it is considerably more plausible an innocent person will die in prison, than an innocent person will be put to death at the hands of the state. It is this lengthy and tedious effort at due process in death penalty cases that protects the life of the innocent.

It should also be noted that with the advent of DNA evidence, the due process for those convicted of capital crimes is strengthened all the more. DNA evidence not only can be used to prove the wrong person was convicted, but it can also be used to remove any doubt about a prisoner's guilt.

I've taken a good deal of flack for my stand against the death-penalty moratorium in my state, even from well-meaning Christians. Nevertheless, it is not a hard-hearted unforgiving spirit that compels me to oppose it, but rather my deep concern for the protection of human life. We are all aware living murderers injure, maim and kill again, in prison, after improper release, and after escape. Whether one believes in the effectiveness of capital punishment as a deterrent or not is irrelevant, one matter can't be contested: the murderer who is executed will never kill again.

Furthermore, it's important to note that in some states where a moratorium was instituted, the murder rate increased. For instance, in Texas, an unofficial moratorium on executions was implemented during most of 1996 and early 1997. A study by Dale O. Cloniger and Roberto Marchesini revealed that as a result of the execution hiatus, the state appeared to have spared few, if any, condemned prisoners, while the citizens of Texas experienced an added loss of 90 innocent lives to homicide, over and above what would have been expected had no moratorium been in place.

Could it be we are so concerned about making sure someone who might not be guilty of a capital crime isn't executed; we forget about protecting the lives of those who are most certainly innocent -- the people of the state? What's fair about that? That's why I hope and pray that when the General Assembly of North Carolina takes up a bill for a moratorium next year, they will do what they ought to do -- put such legislation to death!