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Some Central Prison Inmates Serving Decades On Death Row

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RALEIGH, N.C. — As they continue to fight their cases in court, five men on North Carolina's death row have been there for more than 20 years.The costs add up for the state and the wait takes a toll on the victims' families.

Sonny Craig

, 57, has been on death row since 1982. Four years after he was convicted of murder in Cabarrus County, the state's key witness against him confessed that she, not Craig, had committed the murder.

"I want off of death row," he said. "I have not killed anyone, I have not stabbed anyone, I have not taken anything from anyone."

"There's just a lot of procedures, a lot of human error," said Gretchen Engel, Craig's attorney.

Engel said the state and the courts can take as much time as they want to respond to appeals. In 1988, Craig filed a motion asking for a new trial.

"The state did not answer that motion until 1996 -- eight years later," she said.

Craig is one of five death row inmates who have been on death row for more than two decades.

Francis Anthony

has served 20 years on death row;

Michael Pinch

has served 21 years;

Larry Williams

has served 22 years;

Norris Taylor

has served 23 years.

On average in North Carolina, a person will spend eight to 12 years on death row before he or she is executed. So when someone has been here for more than two decades, there is clearly a problem with the case.

"I just think it makes a mockery of the justice system," said Rep. Hugh Holliman, D-Davidson County.

Holliman said the state and the courts should have deadlines for responding to and ruling on death penalty cases. It is a subject he knows well.

In 1985, his 16-year-old daughter, Susie, was abducted from their Lexington home and killed. Susie's killer, Ricky Lee Sanderson, was executed in 1998.

Holliman believes victims' families should not have to wait for justice.

"I just think people need resolution, they need to know the court system is functioning properly. I can't imagine any case that would take 20 years to resolve," he said.

"My feeling is that if you take it upon yourself to murder someone, you should pay the price for it, whatever the jury decides," said Wayne Uber.

In 1995, Uber's 33-year-old identical twin brother, Jeff, was murdered. He believes dragging out a case for years only benefits the defendant.

"Witnesses die, evidence gets lost. That all plays to what the defense's strategy could be," Uber said.

There is also a financial cost. It is estimated the average death row case costs the state $1.8 million in legal fees. At Central Prison, it costs more than $100 per day to house a death row inmate. The same amount over 20 years would total more than $760,000.

Craig said the cost of making a mistake is much higher.

"If they take my life, they will be taking an innocent life," he said.

Whether he is guilty or innocent, the system has already taken 20 years.

In October, the state Supreme Court ruled that Craig's case should be reviewed.

The attorney general's office represents the state in death penalty appeals. A spokesperson would not talk about these cases because they are still pending.