Raleigh, N.C. — Sen. Thom Goolsby, R-New Hanover, has filed a bill he said will end North Carolina's de facto moratorium on the death penalty. Among other measures, it would wipe away the last vestiges of the Racial Justice Act, a measure that allows death row inmates to challenge their sentences based on statistical evidence.
"Despite have 152 inmates on death row, we have not conducted an execution since 2006," Goolsby said Wednesday.
Lawmakers rolled back much of the Racial Justice Act last year, overriding a gubernatorial veto to do so. That repeal bill limited how statistical information can be used in such appeals. The new bill wipes the additional level of appeals for death row inmates away entirely.
The measure also:
- Codifies court rulings that allow doctors, nurses and other health professionals to participate in executions without sanction from the North Carolina Medical Board or other licensing bodies.
- Outlines the time line the attorney general and Division of Adult Correction has to follow once an inmate has exhausted his or her appeals.
- Provides ongoing training to execution teams.
- Requires regular reports on the status of death row cases to the General Assembly.
It's unclear how much more quickly executions would happen if Goolsby's bill passes. Goolsby said it would remove remaining "impediments and roadblocks" to resuming the death penalty.
"We just feel like these changes need to be made to allow these cases to move forward," Goolsby said.
"Capital punishment in North Carolina currently faces several legal barriers that our lawyers are fighting in both state and federal courts. It remains the law of the land, and we will continue to do our duty to uphold it," said Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Roy Cooper.
She went on to say that the office gives notice to corrections officials once the final legal process is complete. But, she added, North Carolina’s method of execution is currently the subject of pending state and federal litigation regarding cruel and unusual punishment claims.
Goolsby's bill allows state officials to determine the best method of execution that would comply with constitutional requirements.
Still, other senators were not pleased to see it filed.
"It's a step backward for North Carolina," said Sen. Earline Parmon, D-Forsyth. She said the Racial Justice Act was drafted merely to ensure that defendants were sentenced fairly.
Asked whether the state should be working to begin executions again, she said "no," adding that she would prefer to see life in prison be the maximum sentence for a crime.
"It ensures the state doesn't make a mistake by executing someone who is innocent," she said.
Goolsby and other death penalty backers say its unfair to make victims family's wait to see justice carried out.
During a news conference Wednesday, Goolsby was able to claim backing from both local district attorneys and families of murder victims who have seen their loved ones' killers removed from death row.
Buncombe County District Attorney Ron Moore says a death row inmate from his county has exhausted his appeals and not pursued a Racial Justice Act claim.
"He's ready to go and has been for five or six years," Moore said. "There's no impediment as we sit here today."
Families were even more emphatic about the need to move forward.
"This is my daughter," said Marsha Howell, holding up a picture of Evette Howell, who was 17 in 1992 when she was shot and killed. William Christopher Gregory was convicted of that crime and for shooting Evette's brother, Fonzie.
"The Racial Justice Act, it just held up a lot of stuff because the guy who shot my daughter was a black guy," said Howell. "My daughter was black. That's racial justice? No."
Goolsby acknowledged that his bill would do little to affect Gregory's case because it has already entered the RJA process. However, he said it would avoid hang-ups on future cases and could affect RJA cases that have not yet made it to a hearing.
The measure has the support of senior Senate leaders, including President Pro Tem Phil Berger.