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The Daily Tar Heel

State Owes Information To Inmates

And for several months, the department has refused to reveal the identities of those inmates, (even to the inmates and their attorneys) -- at least not voluntarily.

Officials said they do not think they have to.

Something is wrong here.

When the state legislature banned the execution of the mentally retarded last August, it included a clause in the law allowing any inmates sentenced before October 2001 to file motions if they believe standardized tests could prove they were not mentally sane at the time of the crime.

Any inmates able to prove their mental incompetence as described in the bill could be eligible to have their sentences commuted to life imprisonment.

So far, only one inmate has formally filed a motion and successfully challenged his sentence, said Jonathan Broun, staff attorney for the N.C. Center for Death Penalty Litigation.

Sherman Elwood Skipper, a Bladen County man convicted in 1990 of murdering his girlfriend and her grandson, had his sentence commuted in December by a Superior Court judge. Skipper's IQ tested at 69, below the required mark of 70

But according to a fiscal note filed along with the bill by the N.C. Senate, at least three other inmates should be able to appeal under the new law.

The fiscal note states that the corrections department identified three inmates who were found to be mentally retarded by a standardized test that is required by the law.

But department spokesman Keith Acree said officials have not revealed the names of the inmates, even to their attorneys, because the information is considered confidential and a part of the inmate's medical records.

Acree said the information could be released only through the signed consent of an inmate.

And since that has not happened yet, the names remain a secret.

Acree also said the department thinks the burden to prove an inmate's mental capacity falls on the defendants and their attorneys, not the Department of Corrections. In other words, it is the responsibility of state residents, and not a state agency, to make sure that the laws of the land are carried out.

Call me crazy, but that makes no sense.

State agencies should be obligated, as officers of the state, to make sure the laws are carried out.

If an agency thinks it has no duty to voluntarily alert members of the public when a new law could serve to their benefit, one must question its commitment to uphold other laws.

Unfortunately, N.C. public records laws favor the corrections department's actions.

Under the law, agencies do not have to reveal information concerning any litigation affecting it or the state.

And since the state of North Carolina is a party during capital case appeals, those rules apply here.

But shouldn't there be an exception in the law, especially when one's life is at stake?

Apparently not, and that's a problem. Luckily, there is some light at the end of the tunnel.

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Acree said the warden at Central Prison, which houses those on death row, said several inmates are being tested in order to file motions under the new law, including the three inmates alluded to in the fiscal note.

So these three inmates were fortunate enough to have attorneys willing to exhaust all possible appeals on their behalf without any intervention from the state.

But what if they were not willing to test the law?

Had the lawyers for these inmates not been tenacious enough to follow through on their appeals and try to use this new law, they would have remained nameless among the 213 who now sit on North Carolina's death row.

Then one day those inmates would have their execution date set and would die never knowing their sentences could have been commuted.

And corrections officials would have not been held accountable or even felt responsible.

Something is wrong here.

Columnist April Bethea can be reached at

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