Local News

Durham Passes Resolution Against Death Penalty, Stay Granted for Keel

Posted August 2, 1999

— Three Triangle cities have now denounced the state's death penalty law just days before another criminal was scheduled to be executed. For now, the execution is off, but the debate over capital punishment is still very much alive.

Joseph Timothy Keelwas scheduled to be executed at 2 a.m. Friday. Keel was granted a stay of execution by the North Carolina Supreme Court just before 6 p.m. Tuesday.

Attorneys for Keel say the state Supreme Court had a problem with some of the discovery evidence in Keel's original trial. The lawyers acknowledge it is just a stay, and Keel could still face death for the 1990 murder of his father-in-law in Edgecombe County.

A group opposing Keel's execution met with Governor Hunt Tuesday afternoon to plea for Keel's life. Group representatives say they have the backing of many of North Carolina's residents.

Monday night, Durham became the largest city in the nation to pass a resolution urging state lawmakers to adopt a moratorium on capital punishment.

Durham is the third municipality in North Carolina to pass such a resolution; Carrboro and Chapel Hill passed similar resolutions in June.

Some say the resolutions prove there is a growing anti-death penalty coalition in the state. Others say the majority of residents still support capital punishment.

"The information that I've seen is that somewhere between 70 and 80 percent of our population supports having a death penalty," says Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby. "I think this represents a small, vocal group of opposition."

Durham Mayor Nick Tennyson voted against the resolution. "The proposal that was made was presented in great sincerity. It just so happens that I did not find enough specifics about what positive outcome would be achieved to be able to support it."

"When I look at the death penalty, for me, it is not deterrence and it's not going to make anybody come back to life," Tennyson says. "But for me, the death penalty is society's statement that some crimes are so abhorrent that there is no other appropriate punishment."

Municipal leaders say they have begun passing these resolutions to ensure capital punishment cases are administered fairly and to prevent the execution of people who are mentally retarded or committed offenses before they were 18. Supporters of the resolution say they are trying to protect those who are unfairly targeted.

"And that's the group that includes minorities, the underaged and the mentally retarded. And whether or not that's targeted in a deliberate sense, it seems to be happening," says Durham City Council member Virginia Engelhard.

Engelhard believes it is within the city council's domain to make such a resolution. "If there is a question about it that's a broad society issue, I think there is a responsibility of a governing body to make some statement about it," she says.

A spokesperson for House Speaker Jim Black says a resolution passed by three localities does not have much of an impact. He says he will take notice when the number reaches a dozen or more. A spokesman for Governor Hunt says the governor has his own views on the death penalty and left it at that.

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