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Death Penalty Study Still On Hold 

NC House yet to vote

Many people now on death row could seek stays of execution if lawmakers approve a study of North Carolina's capital punishment process, according to at least one supporter of the study. But as of late last week, the study's fate remained uncertain.

In May 2001, state lawmakers agreed to let prosecutors seek life without parole instead of capital punishment in first-degree murder cases. David Neal, spokesman for the NC Coaliation for a Moratorium and executive director of the Fair Trial Initiative, believes some people convicted before the change could get judges to review their sentences.

But that's only if the proposed death-penalty fairness study passes the state House of Representatives, he said. (More than 150 criminals now on death row got there before May 2001, according to state records.)

"There ought to be some mechanism for those people to present that issue to the courts," Neal said.

Originally, Democratic leaders proposed a two-year moratorium on capital punishment while a panel examined whether racism, incompetent counsel, geography and other factors influenced who is sentenced to death in North Carolina. A moratorium passed the state Senate two years ago, but House lawmakers have yet to vote on the proposal.

Rep. Joe Hackney, D-Orange, proposed a compromise: No blanket moratorium, but allow death row inmates to seek stays from Superior Court judges if they believe judicial flaws affected their cases. Meanwhile, a 15-member panel would examine if capital punishment is rendered equitably in the state.

As of late last week, vote on Hackney's compromise remained postponed until at least Aug. 1. Mel Chilton, executive director of the NC Victim Assistance Network, said that's a sign supporters don't have the votes needed to pass the bill. Even some lawmakers who supported the moratorium are balking at the provision allowing inmates to seek stays, which opponents of the study say allows a lower court to overrule a higher one. "That does not make sense," Chilton said. "This is the worst (bill) for crime victims."

What is clear is that some people convicted of murder have later been freed or pardoned. Just last week, a Stokes County man sentenced to death won a new trial because DNA testing cast doubt on his guilt. A jury last year acquitted Alan Gell after the condemned Bertie County man spent six years in prison.

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