The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Wednesday February 1st

N.C. Action Not in Line With Nation

But now the state is making headlines in a different arena.

The Washington Post reported Thursday that the number of executions across the country is down dramatically for the second year in a row. Virginia and Texas, once noted for having the most executions, have shown sharp declines. Some have even speculated that this year, the United States could execute the fewest number of inmates since 1996.

But in North Carolina, statistics tell a different tale.

Last year, the state executed only one inmate, Michael Sexton, according to the N.C. Department of Correction's Web site. The number has already tripled this year with the executions of Willie Fisher, Clifton White and Ronald Frye.

On the other hand, Texas has executed 12 people this year, with six more scheduled -- a marked decrease from the record-setting 40 executions performed in the state a year earlier.

The Post attributed the national decline in executions to lower crime rates and public opposition to the death penalty. Several states have passed laws this year making it easier for inmates to receive post-conviction DNA testing, and in Georgia, legislators have halted all executions as they consider whether electrocution is "cruel and unusual punishment."

Further adding to the fury, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said in July that she believes there are "serious questions" about the current application of the death penalty. O'Connor could have a tremendous impact on the court as it decides this fall whether it is unconstitutional to execute the mentally retarded.

But alas, North Carolina has strayed from the pack again. Last week, Gov. Mike Easley denied clemency for Frye despite objections from the N.C. Academy of Trial Lawyers. The lawyer's group urged Easley to grant Frye clemency -- the first time the group has done so in its 35-year history -- claiming Frye received inadequate counsel because one of his lawyers, Thomas Portwood, allegedly drank heavily every night of the trial.

According to an article in The News & Observer, Frye's co-counsel, Theodore Cummings, signed an affidavit stating that he ignored Portwood's drinking during the trial. The affidavit also reportedly states that the lawyers failed to thoroughly examine public documents that might have warranted a different sentence in the trial.

But in a press release sent last Thursday, Easley denied the lawyers' claims and said, "the premeditated and vicious nature of this murder leads me to conclude that there is no reason to overturn a death sentence."

One year ago, many had hoped that the state would not even be performing executions.

A legislative committee, co-chaired by Sen. Frank Ballance, formed last fall to study inadequacies in the death penalty. In December, the committee recommended a two-year halt on executions and proposed a bill banning the executions of the mentally retarded.

When the N.C. General Assembly session opened for its 2001 session, legislators wasted no time bringing the committee's recommendations to the House and Senate floors. It seemed almost certain that the bills might be considered this year.

Today, things look a little different.

While legislators did pass a bill outlawing the executions of the mentally retarded last month, the moratorium bill appears dead.

Frank Ballance, D-Bertie, told The Daily Tar Heel last month that he doubts further action will be taken on the moratorium bill this year or during the next session. In the meantime, the state is preparing the execute its fourth inmate of this year. Robert Bacon Jr. is scheduled to die by lethal injection on Sept. 21.

Easley could grant Bacon a stay of execution. But given his clemency record and strong pro-death penalty stance, that appears unlikely.

And so the trend continues.

North Carolina is again straying from the pack, albeit good or bad.

Columnist April Bethea can be reached at adbethea@email.unc.edu.

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