The Daily Tar Heel

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Wednesday February 8th

Death Penalty Legislation Stranded in Committee

Frank Ballance, a Democrat from Bertie, sponsored the legislation, which is unlikely to see any further action.

The bill, which was signed into law Aug. 4, prohibits the execution of anyone who has an IQ below 70 and has significant limitations in at least two of the following adaptive skills -- communication, self-care, home-living or work skills. Both criteria must have been demonstrated before the age of 18.

North Carolina is one of 18 states that has banned the execution of the mentally retarded.

Another bill, calling for a moratorium on the death penalty, was filed Feb. 15 but remains stuck in a Senate committee.

Sen. Frank Ballance, D-Bertie, the primary sponsor of both death penalty bills, said it is unlikely any further action will be taken on the moratorium bill this year or during the 2002 session.

"There just wasn't enough wind in the sails," said Ballance, who served on a study committee last spring that recommended the legislature adopt a moratorium. He said another bill calling for a death penalty moratorium will likely come up during a future session but did not say if he would sponsor such a bill.

"This is clearly an issue that remains before the citizens of this state," Ballance said. Ballance also said he was displeased with the final version of the bill banning executions of the mentally retarded.

According to the bill, the defendant is allowed to present a pretrial motion asking the judge to determine if the defendant is mentally retarded. If the court rules that the defendant is not mentally retarded, then the jury is allowed to consider the issue during the sentence hearing.

If the jury finds that the defendant is mentally retarded, the defendant can not receive the death penalty and will be sentenced to life imprisonment.

"I wanted to have the defendant file a pretrial motion contending that he shouldn't be tried," Ballance said. "But district attorneys wanted the jury to make the decision." He said the final bill is a combination of the two approaches.

But some legislators believe that both moratorium bills go too far.

Sen. Hugh Webster, R-Alamance, said he voted against the bill banning the execution of the mentally retarded because the bill weakens the jury's authority and because he was afraid it was the first step toward eliminating the death penalty in the state.

"The jury should decide an issue like this, not a bunch of lawyers in a room behind the judge's chambers," said Webster, who cast the only dissenting vote in the Senate.

Webster, who sits on the Judiciary Committee II with Ballance, said advocates of the bill could not refer to any example cases where a mentally retarded person was executed.

He cited one case, sometimes labeled by death penalty opponents as a wrongful execution, where the defendant planned a robbery, acquired a murder weapon and killed a cashier.

"I care more for the civilized, law-abiding victims than the killers," Webster said, adding that he received an outpouring of support from the families of victims following the vote.

"They congratulated me for being the only one brave enough to stand up."

The State & National Editor can be reached at stntdesk@unc.edu.

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