Local News

Chorus of concern about death penalty grows louder

Posted August 23, 2010 11:09 a.m. EDT
Updated August 23, 2010 7:01 p.m. EDT

Leaders of the state NAACP and a coalition of associated groups added their voices Monday to the chorus of concern about practices at the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation crime lab and their impact on those who are sentenced to death in the state.

An independent report issued last week found analysts at the lab omitted, overstated or falsely reported blood evidence in more than 200 cases between 1987 and 2003. The government-ordered report by two former FBI officials found that SBI agents repeatedly aided prosecutors in obtaining convictions, mostly by misrepresenting blood evidence and keeping critical notes from defense attorneys.

In a statement released Monday, the NAACP said, “For those of us who view the criminal justice system through the lens molded by the dark and gloomy past of legalized racial discrimination, the revelations of the Swecker Report are a disturbing reminder of the old times that are not forgotten.”

"We've had many persons released from death row, cases that had to be overturned because of bad prosecutorial activity, so we must plumb the depths of this problem," said Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP.

Joining the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People on Monday were representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, Carolina Justice Policy Center, Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation, North Carolina Coalition for a Moratorium, People of Faith Against the Death Penalty and Southern Coalition for Social Justice.

The coalition echoed the call by the Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation for a halt to all future executions until a comprehensive review of the entire SBI can occur.

They called on Gov. Bev Perdue to commute all current death sentences to life, pending the results of "a complete and comprehensive audit and careful review of each case."

They also seek a review of the sentences of the 159 people currently on North Carolina’s death row and said they would consider pushing for a repeal of the death penalty in the state.

State Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake, said the statements are nothing new for groups whose opposition to the death penalty is well-documented. He said of the call for a death penalty moratorium in the state, "That would be a particularly foolish response to the report."

Life in prison, Stam said, is a retirement plan for the criminal class. "You get three meals a day for the rest of your life, no retirement worries, no insurance worries, no medical care worries."

"I don't think we can execute anyone knowing what we know," said Lao Rubert of the Carolina Justice Policy Center.

"We have people who said they were innocent at the time they were executed. We will never know these things for certain, but we have an obligation to go back and look at every single case of every single person on death row," she said.

Jeremy Collins, of the Coalition for a Moratorium, went even further. "We must fully investigate cases of all North Carolinians executed since the crime lab was commenced to make sure no person was wrongfully executed," he said.

Stam said the outcry over the SBI report is a just another way to insert delay into a process that already has enough delays. 

He pointed out that the average death penalty case is reviewed multiple times and can take up to 15 years to result in execution. "These cases will be reviewed," he said.

North Carolina has been under a de facto moratorium since 2007 because of disputes over doctors' roles in executions and prisoners' concerns on how they are carried out.

In recent weeks, 147 of the 159 on death row have filed for relief under the state's Racial Justice Act, which allows defendants to to file a claim of racial bias in their death sentence.

The last man to die for his crime was Samuel R. Flippen, who was executed Aug. 18, 2006, for the murder of Britnie Nichole Hutton in Forsyth County.

Legal experts expect it to take at least a couple more years while those issues are resolved before the state can resume any executions.