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State Supreme Court Decision Could Affect Life on Death Row

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RALEIGH — Families who lose a loved one to murder suffer long after the funeral ends. They're the living victims of the crime.

Some closure and healing come with a trial and conviction, but now many of those old wounds are being reopened.

In a packed courtroom Monday morning,North Carolina Supreme Courtjustices heard arguments on one case that could effect a string of death penalty convictions.

Harvey Lee Green was sent to death row 16 years ago for killing a school girl and another person. Justices must decide if Green and other death row inmates get another chance at life.

Families who showed up at court Monday have a lot at stake. They've all buried a family member who was the victim of a murder.

"We're tired of having to fight for our chances and my brother never had a chance," says family member Linda Moore.

A 1996 law was designed to speed up the appeals process in death penalty cases. It includes an amendment requiring the prosecution to hand over their entire file to the defense.

Now, convicted killer Harvey Lee Green is using the law designed to speed up the process to slow his down. Green's case is held up on appeal.

No court has ever found a problem with the trial or conviction or sentence. So how did he end up getting the attention of the N.C. Supreme Court?

Lawyers. They say Green, and others on death row, deserve the protection of the new law no matter how long it has been since they were convicted.

"This clearly is a stall tactic," saysNorth Carolina Attorney GeneralMike Easley.

Easley says if the Supreme Court agrees, several of the state's 187 death row inmates would be entitled to new post-conviction hearings.

He argues the law is not retroactive and making it so could add years of delays for convicted murderers, including Green, who have been sentenced to death.

"That's just going to add a lot more time to the system already in place. A lot more money, a lot more tax dollars to a guy who has admitted his guilt and has been determined by the court to have had a very fair trial. There's no reason to go forward with anything other than his execution," says Easley.

"It is unfair to say it slows things down," says State SenatorWib Gulleywho authored the amendment.

He says, despite the Green appeal, the law speeds up the process.

"We need this as a safeguard," says Gulley. "The good thing about this amendment that was put into law is that all this will come out at the trial level. And so we are going to stop having things go up on appeal and years later discover we did it wrong and they should go back and do it right. That's why I think it's going to speed things up."

Victim advocates disagree. Catherine Gallagher Smith believes a decision in favor of Harvey Lee Green could hurt public confidence in our judicial system.

She's also concerned that it will mean more suffering for the families of the victims.

"We have these man-made statutes put into place to thwart the people's will in our system of justice and that worries me," says Smith.

Green's attorney argued Monday that the General Assembly could have limited the new law to new cases and they did not do that.

Green was scheduled to die March 5. His execution has been stayed until the justices make a decision in the hearing.