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The Daily Tar Heel

Commutation Raises Questions

This is the first time Gov. Mike Easley has commuted the sentence of a death row inmate since taking office.

Robert Bacon was scheduled to be executed Oct. 5., but Easley commuted his sentence Tuesday to life in prison without parole.

The move caught attention because another death sentence similar to Bacon's is up for Easley's consideration next week, leaving some to wonder whether Easley might grant another commutation.

Easley declined to discuss Bacon's case but issued a statement stating, "My review of this matter in its totality causes me to conclude that the appropriate sentence for the defendant is life without parole."

Gretchen Engel, one of Bacon's lawyers, said she is thrilled about the decision. "Robert deserves to live," she said, "(He's) very thankful for the governor's actions."

Questions had been raised about whether jurors opposed to interracial relationships had unfairly given Bacon a harsher sentence.

Bacon and his lover Bonnie Clark had conspired to kill Clark's husband. Bacon, who is black, was sentenced to death for the 1987 stabbing, and Clark, who is white, was sentenced to life in prison. "My guess is that questions of racism were troubling to the governor," Engel said. "He's demonstrated his sensitivity to race issues."

Easley, who opposed death penalty appeals while working as attorney general, has refused to commute three previous death sentences.

Lawsuits alleging that Easley is biased and therefore unfit to consider death penalty appeals had been filed in state and federal courts by Bacon's lawyers but were dismissed.

In August, the state Supreme Court ruled that convicted murderers do not have a constitutional right to have an impartial person decide their clemency request. Other suits might be forthcoming.

Sen. Frank Ballance, D-Warren, said he thinks the governor's actions were not motivated by the lawsuits. "You just have to believe that people are going to do what the facts call for."

Ballance said he does not know if the commutation will affect the outcome of potential lawsuits. "It could have an impact," he said.

Ballance said he commends the governor for his handling of the case in light of the racism allegations involved.

But others said that although they are pleased with Easley's decision, they doubt whether he will apply the same scrutiny to upcoming cases.

UNC senior John Johnson, a member of UNC's Campaign to End the Death Penalty, said the decision was an appropriate use of the governor's clemency power. "It's unfortunate, though, that so many people have been allowed to be executed despite the fact that their cases were as bad, or worse, than Bacon's," Johnson added.

"My biggest fear is that Easley will feel like he did his `good deed' and won't feel obliged to correct any more injustices in the future."

Easley will decide next week whether to grant clemency to David Ward, who is scheduled to be executed next Friday.

Engel said that Ward's case was very similar to Bacon's. "Ward's co-defendant is the one that planned the murder, and he got a life sentence," Engel said. "That doesn't seem fair."

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

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