Local News

Exonerated Inmates Protest Death Penalty

Posted November 2, 2007 6:20 p.m. EDT
Updated November 2, 2007 8:07 p.m. EDT

— Seventeen former death row inmates from across the country gathered at the General Assembly Friday to focus on what they see as a major flaw with the death penalty – an innocent person could be executed.

All 17 had been condemned to die, only to be declared innocent years later. One of them, Harold Wilson, spent 17 years on death row in Pennsylvania for a triple murder he didn't commit.

"The district attorney's office was practicing a pattern and policy of using race discrimination," Wilson said. "Execute justice. Right now we have a broken system."

North Carolina lawmakers have balked for the past two years at the idea of issuing a moratorium on the death penalty. But the state has had a de facto moratorium since January because of court disputes over the role of physicians in executions and how to ensure that inmates don't suffer while undergoing lethal injection, which could violate the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

The U.S. Supreme Court has taken a case this year that includes that question.

Gov. Mike Easley, who supports the death penalty, said the state needs to study the justice system while executions remain on hold.

Death penalty opponent Kurt Rosenburg agreed that more study is needed.

"How can we figure out what the right way to kill someone is when we can't even figure out whether we're killing the right person?" Rosenburg asked.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, executions steadily dropped nationally from 59 in 2005 to 52 in 2006 to 41 this year.

State Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, said flawed North Carolina cases like the overturned murder conviction of Alan Gell, the wrongful rape conviction of Darryl Hunt and the rush to judgment of three Duke University lacrosse players wrongly accused of rape merit a deliberate look at the entire justice system.

"Lethal injection is sort of a technicality on how the death penalty is administered. Whether we should be administering the death penalty at all is the bigger question," Harrison said.

Still, polls show a majority of North Carolina residents continue to support death sentences for convicted killers.