Justice Withheld Series

The News & Observer / North Carolina

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Bonnie M. Wells

Black Plans Death Penalty Panel

Dan Kane, Staff Writer

House Speaker Jim Black said Thursday that he would create a panel to study how the death penalty works in North Carolina, regardless of whether he can get a two-year moratorium on executions approved by the House.

"If we don't get a referendum, I will still do a study," said Black, a Mecklenburg County Democrat.

Black made the pledge after withdrawing an effort to pass the moratorium in the House this week.

He and other advocates said they were a few votes shy of winning support, but the bill survives because it would require state funding to create the study commission.

Bills that do not require state funding had a deadline this week to gain passage in either the House or the Senate. The Senate has not taken up the moratorium this session, but the chamber did pass it in 2003.

The moratorium would suspend executions for two years while a panel studies how the death penalty has been applied in state courts. Murder trials, convictions and sentencings would continue.

Black said he remains a death penalty supporter. But he said he began to have questions about its application after two recent cases in which evidence surfaced that cleared two men wrongly convicted of murder.

Black said he plans to try to run the moratorium legislation in about two weeks, but he doesn't know if he'll have the votes by then for passage.

"It's a lot like the lottery vote," he said. "It's so iffy. It's a major decision and people change their minds from day to day."

But one opponent, Rep. Rick Eddins, a Raleigh Republican, said Black may not win more votes with Thursday's announcement.

Eddins said he and other opponents have long welcomed a study, so long as there's no suspension of executions.

He said the fact that one hasn't been launched in recent years shows that "the moratorium is a smokescreen to do away with the death penalty."

Black Delays Vote To Halt Executions

Matthew Eisley, Staff Writer

There's suddenly a moratorium on the moratorium.

The pivotal vote on whether to halt executions in North Carolina for two years -- which had been planned for Wednesday in the state House -- will wait a couple of weeks, House Speaker Jim Black said late Wednesday.

After consulting with allies during a dinner break in the House session, Black postponed action on the controversial death penalty moratorium bill.

Supporters conceded they lacked enough votes to enact it. "We are very close, but we need more time," said Rep. Paul Luebke, a Durham Democrat who co-sponsored the bill. "We'll just keep working."

Under the proposal, executions would stop for two years while a new commission examines the reliability of the state's death penalty system and proposes remedies for any problems it finds. The study, though, could continue a third year. Murder trials, convictions and sentencing would go on as usual.

The Senate approved a similar measure two years ago that died in the House. But Senate passage is not certain, several state senators said Wednesday.

Gov. Mike Easley, a Democrat and former district attorney, has said there's no need for a halt.

The bill's main sponsor, Rep. Joe Hackney, a Chapel Hill Democrat, said backers are considering changing the bill to make it more acceptable to wavering lawmakers. He wouldn't say how.

"We're working it," he said.

A key opponent said Black put off the vote because it would have lost narrowly in the 120-member House. "I think they've had 58 votes the whole time, and that's where they're still stuck," said Rep. Rick Eddins, a Raleigh Republican leading the opposition.

On Tuesday, Black and Hackney had said the bill required passage by today to meet a deadline for legislation to pass from one chamber to the other.

But language added to the bill Tuesday before a committee vote indirectly exempted it from the so-called crossover deadline today. The delay gives organizers more time to lobby undecided lawmakers.

Luebke, Hackney and other supporters have tried to talk unsure members through their concerns.

On the other side, Eddins said lawmakers opposed to the moratorium have pressed colleagues to stand firm. "We've also had crime victims across the state calling their members," he said.

But the delay helps moratorium supporters, Eddins said.

"It gives them more time to approach the members who were on the fence and see if they can get them to change their minds," he said. "The speaker has a lot of ways to try to do that."

Black, a Matthews Democrat, said he is discussing the bill with individual House members but isn't pushing them hard on it. He said a vote is likely in mid-June.

"What some members are worried about is how the other side will use it against them," Black said. "But at the end of the day, you have to vote on it based on how you feel about it in your heart and in your mind."

Staff writer Matthew Eisley can be reached at 829-4538 or meisley@newsobserver.com.

State Bar's Conduct Under Scrutiny Today:

Joseph Neff, Richard Stradling and Valerie Bauerlein, staff writers

An unusual self-examination gets under way today at the N.C. State Bar, the agency that licenses and disciplines lawyers.

A committee is examining how the State Bar handled the disciplinary hearing in September against David Hoke and Debra Graves, former prosecutors for the state Attorney General's Office.

Hoke and Graves were reprimanded for withholding evidence from Alan Gell's defense at his 1998 trial, which ended in a death sentence for Gell.

Lawyers complained that the bar conducted a perfunctory investigation and weak prosecution of the pair's work in the trial. They faulted the bar for not talking with the lead investigator in the case, for putting on no live witnesses and for not contesting erroneous testimony about constitutional law by Hoke and Jim Coman of the Attorney General's Office.

The committee will examine whether any undue influence was exerted during the prosecution of Hoke and Graves and whether that prosecution met the standards of acceptable lawyering.

The committee will hear from 24 people, including the State Bar lawyers who handled the case and the panel that delivered the reprimand. Several are people that the State Bar did not call before, such as SBI agent Dwight Ransome, the lead investigator in the case, and former District Attorney David Beard.

Hoke, the number two administrator in the state court system and chief legal adviser to Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake Jr., declined the committee's invitation to answer questions. So did Graves, who is now a federal public defender.

Gell spent nine years behind bars, half of that on death row, for the 1995 murder of Allen Ray Jenkins.

Gell won a new trial in 2002 because Hoke and Graves had withheld evidence that they were bound by law to turn over. That included statements of people who saw Jenkins alive after Gell had been jailed for another crime and a taped conversation of the star witness saying she had to "make up a story" for police. He was acquitted and freed from prison.

Democrats talk about faith

House Democrats have chosen U.S. Rep. David Price to help lead their "God Squad."

Price, of Chapel Hill, will be a vice chairman of the Democrats' Faith and Values Task Force. The chairman is U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina. U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri is the other vice chairman.

The task force has 34 members, including Reps. Bob Etheridge of Lillington and Mike McIntyre of Lumberton.

Clyburn is urging Democrats to talk more about religion and how their faith influences their decisions.

Price, a political science professor, wrote about the intersection of faith and politics in one of his books. He has a bachelor's degree in divinity from Yale.

Morgan's ally has a new job

Former Republican state Rep. Keith Williams of Onslow County had a brief career in state politics, thanks in part to his role in helping Richard Morgan become House co-speaker two years ago.

Today, Williams returns to Raleigh to start a career as a bureaucrat.

Williams becomes the first executive director of the State Property Commission. The legislature created the independent commission last year to look for surplus state property to sell or lease to private developers. Commission members voted last week to hire Williams through at least June 30, 2006, at an annual salary of $65,000.

Williams, a minister with a real estate broker's license, was a freshman legislator who supported the dual House speakership of Morgan, a Republican, and Democrat Jim Black last term. The power-sharing deal was unpopular with many Republicans. In July, Williams lost a primary challenge to George G. Cleveland of Jacksonville. Cleveland went on to win the general election.

The 16-member State Property Commission will ask real estate agents to identify state land or buildings with development potential. If state officials agree the state no longer needs the property, brokers who make a successful pitch will get an exclusive contract to sell or lease it and brokerage fees if the deal goes through.


If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit. (Matthew 15:14)

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