State News

Bias claims are new diversion for N.C. executions

Posted August 11, 2010

— Two decades after Blanche Moore was sent to death row for the fatal poisoning of a former boyfriend, her pathway to the execution chamber has been diverted again.

The 77-year-old white woman is among dozens of capital convicts in North Carolina this week to allege racial bias in sentencing.

The deadline for those inmates to file claims under the year-old Racial Justice Act was Tuesday. The state Attorney General's Office reported that, as of Wednesday afternoon, 135 of the 159 people on death row had filed a claim, and officials said the numbers could go up if some petitions are still in the mail.

Seventy-six of those 135 inmates are black, while 48 are white. Seven are Native American, and four others don't fall into any of those racial categories. They all allege discrimination either in how jurors were seated or because of their race or the race of their victim.

"Nobody knew what the number might be, but we knew there were substantial numbers of African-Americans and other minorities on death row," said state Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, who sponsored the Racial Justice Act.

North Carolina and Kentucky are the only states that allow defendants to present statistical evidence to argue that racial bias affected their sentencing.

"What the statute allows is for you to argue if there are disparities you can't explain," said Gretchen Engel, a staff attorney at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, a Durham-based nonprofit that represents inmates on death row.

Nine of Engel's clients have filed bias claims. She said that, even in cases with white defendants, prosecutors had a higher percentage of blacks stricken from the jury.

Jail generic, prison generic Scores of inmates allege racial bias in sentencing

House Minority Leader Paul Stam called the Racial Justice Act a bad bill, saying it was poorly written and is too broad.

"Unfortunately, too many of our members in the House and Senate just saw the title of the bill and said, 'I better vote for that. Sounds good,'" said Stam, R-Wake.

Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger said he believes the law was designed to extend the state’s unofficial moratorium on the death penalty.

“As a practical matter, the death penalty does not exist in North Carolina at this time,” said Berger, R-Rockingham.

North Carolina's system of capital punishment already faces a series of other lingering questions, including the use of lethal injection, the role of medical personnel and a century-old law on who crafts the execution protocol.

North Carolina hasn’t executed a convict since 2006. It’s not clear when, or if, another will happen as officials try to untangle what former Gov. Mike Easley once described as a “Gordian knot.”

“You can try to untie it, but it’s seemingly impossible,” said Stephen Dear, executive director of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty. “You can never make (the death penalty) perfect.”

Opponents of the death penalty have successfully worked for years to stall executions. A debate over the state’s lethal injection procedure – specifically what role a doctor should have – first brought capital punishment to a halt in 2007 when the North Carolina Medical Board threatened to discipline any doctor who “engages in any verbal or physical activity … that facilitates the execution.”

To overcome that threat, state officials tried to amend the execution protocol to say that a nurse and a medical technician – not a doctor – would monitor the inmate’s vital signs. But a judge later determined that the Council of State must approve those changes.

Officials have since approved changes, and the Supreme Court ruled that the medical board overstepped its authority.

Ken Rose, a staff attorney at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, believes two issues are still blocking executions.

Lawyers have argued before the courts that officials did not allow proper public input before changing the state’s execution protocol. They are also raising questions about the constitutionality of lethal injection – an argument raised in other states as experts question whether convicts can be executed without suffering pain.

Chrissy Pearson, a spokeswoman for Gov. Beverly Perdue, said the governor still supports the death penalty but wants to make sure it is not applied unfairly or with bias.

“She understands that this is an important enough issue that it needs to work its way through the court system,” Pearson said.

About half the prisoners on death row are black, even though black people make up less than a quarter of the state’s population. Researchers recently concluded that a convicted killer is three times more likely to get a death sentence in North Carolina if the victim is white rather than black.

Many of the Racial Justice Act claims, however, aren’t based on the race of the convict or victim but rather the diversity of the jury. Along with Moore, who was also suspected in other poisonings, the claimants include inmates convicted in some notorious cases:

  • Tilmon Golphin, who was convicted of killing a state trooper and a Cumberland County sheriff’s deputy in September 1997
  • Henry Louis Wallace, who was considered one of North Carolina’s worst serial killers after he was convicted of raping and killing nine black Charlotte women in the early 1990s
  • Abner Nicholson, who killed his wife and Sharpsburg Police Chief Wayne Hathaway in 1997

Tye Hunter, executive director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, said he believes each of the center's 40 clients has a legitimate claim under the law.

"It's a brand new statute, so we don't know exactly how this statute is going to be interpreted," Hunter said.

Prosecutors have said challenges under the new law will be time-consuming, expensive and will overwhelm the courts, but Hunter said the state can free up the courts and save millions of dollars by consolidating the cases under one judge.

Tom Bennett, executive director of the North Carolina Victim Assistance Network, said he was concerned from the start that the new law passed last year was not going to be used as a safeguard for racial justice but used to make the death penalty unenforceable.

“The fact that so many death row inmates, including white offenders, are seeking to exploit the law shows that our fears were justified,” he said.

McKissick said he expects the law to be interpreted fairly, even for white death row inmates.

"I'm not going to comment on the validity (of claims by white inmates), but I think they have a much higher hurdle to overcome," he said.


This story is closed for comments.

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  • littleriver69 Aug 13, 2010

    Playing the race card again. Typical.

  • flip126822 Aug 13, 2010

    oh....since the Opening line is about Blanche Taylor Moore...her background is more than once murder. She was convicted of one murder for certain, but she also nearly killed another man...which is how she got caught...she was bringing the arsenic to him IN THE HOSPITAL!!! She even had the nerve to shave his head in order to try and avoid discovery. She is also suspected (the bodies were exhumed and arsenic was found but no way to prove it was her) of murdering her father, her first mother-in-law, and another husband. Tell me how she is still alive and can be claiming racial profiling!! She is a monster cloaked in a human disguise. Her sole purpose for murder was monetarily oriented...she killed for a living. To acquire and then keep a specific type of lifestyle.

  • drj32 Aug 12, 2010

    From the comments on this story, I take it you all believe the justice system is 100% right every time. Just because your life is pitiful doesn't mean you have to come on and post your pathetic views. You feel so great that you haven't committed a crime of such magnitude that you comment on people whose lives hang in the balance whether you know they are innocent or not.

  • MillerB Aug 12, 2010

    OGE- If you SLAUGHTER some one in cold blood, I could really care less if you have a say in your EXECUTION or not. As soon as you muder an innocent, you have ZERO rights, period, end 'o story.

  • missy01 Aug 12, 2010

    OGE - "Murder is Murder! Even if it is the State, Doctor or an Individual doing it."
    Sorry, but the first one is murder. The second administered by the state is justice. However, if the first one doesn't occur (murder), then the second one doesn't occur (justice.) But if the first one DOES occur, the second one MUST occur. It's a cause and effect to put it simply. It's also a form of protection for society.

  • nighthunter Aug 12, 2010

    It is my understanding that society has laws that result in imprisonment and death due to the basic concept that either the crime committed was one in which society believed that the perpetrator could be punished, rehabilitated, and released back into society, or that the crime was so horrendous that the perpetrator was never to be in society again. Thus, I believe that any sentence over 10 years, is a cruel punishment, and that those that cannot be released back into society after 10 years should be executed. If they were found guilty of the crime, and the Court of Appeal did not reverse the decision, hold the execution promptly. Oh, and this nonsense that the person being executed should feel no pain - what utter nonsense. I'm in favor of going back to the guillotine.

  • rroadrunner99 Aug 12, 2010

    I think the death penalty should be enforced NOW! All these people who are against it, well let them take a prisoner off of Death row home with them handcuffed to them 24-7 365 day's a year never seperated. Making sure they don't kill again. Let them support them since they don't want them killed for their crimes.When the death penalty is enforced again, and prison's are not "vacation hotel's" anymore you'll see the crime rate's drop drastically. But as long as the taxpaying law abiding citizen's have to bow to every little whim of a law breaker in prison the prison's will stay full.

  • LambeauSouth Aug 12, 2010

    Murder is Murder! Even if it is the State, Doctor or an Individual doing it.

    In EVERY case the person being killed has no say.

    I could not disagree more. They knowing took another humans life fully aware of the consequences of their actions. They the killers did have a say, the only people in this that did not were the victims.

  • rcrdngcountry Aug 12, 2010

    hey, why don't we just set aside one day a month for the meanest
    killer on death row, and make it a holiday. mybe give them some
    sort of medal, sorta like the purple heart, because they are SO
    nice. mr tye hunter, would that be make you happy? OH YEA IF YOU

  • OGE Aug 12, 2010

    Murder is Murder! Even if it is the State, Doctor or an Individual doing it.

    In EVERY case the person being killed has no say.