The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Monday December 6th

A necessary pause

A recent death-row case has revealed flaws in North Carolina's legal system. A moratorium is only fair to inmates until the system is fixed.

There's a serious problem with North Carolina's legal system when we find that the star witness in a death-penalty case "had to make up a story," to satisfy the police.

As outrageous as it might sound, prosecutors had these words on tape in the case of Alan Gell, who was found guilty and sentenced to death in 1998 for a murder he didn't commit.

The state's illegal actions might be the tip of the iceberg of prosecutor abuse in North Carolina or they might be an isolated incident - we have no way of telling. But North Carolina must prevent egregious errors such as this one from slipping between the cracks.

For now, leave any debate about the merits of capital punishment aside.

It's obvious that a moratorium on the death penalty is necessary. A moratorium would allow for study of the system, itself, to ensure that innocent men such as Gell don't ever face the only irreversible form of punishment the government has at its disposal.

Gell was awarded a new trial when Superior Court Judge Cy A. Grant Sr. faulted prosecutors for withholding evidence that he said could have been used to prove Gell's innocence at his trial. On Feb. 18, 2004, Alan Gell was acquitted in the case.

Gell is not the only innocent North Carolina has put behind bars in recent years. And the careless disregard for justice demonstrated by the prosecution in his case indicates appalling ineptitude on the part of the state.

Since 1973, more than 100 people in 25 states have been released from death row based on evidence of their innocence. This evidence suggests that the current system is flawed.

In the Gell case and others like it, North Carolina has betrayed the solemn pledge made by the government to its citizens. Since death is the ultimate end -- a punishment that cannot be undone - North Carolina must move mountains to protect those in Gell's position. Nine years in prison was bad enough - imagine if Gell's sentence had gone unquestioned.

According to the N.C. Department of Correction Web site, North Carolina has executed 32 people since 1984, and there are currently 185 offenders on death row waiting to be executed.

Before another life is taken, the state needs to take every possible action to ensure that an innocent person isn't wrongfully executed.

For those on death row, time is not unlimited. Inmates do not have the option or the luxury to wait - immediate action must be taken on their behalf.

U.S. Congress has given North Carolina an opportunity to help combat wrongful convictions in some cases. A bill was passed this month that gives rape victims and convicted felons greater access to DNA testing.

This bill was written after members of Congress became aware of a case in which a man who had been sentenced to death was cleared of murder charges by DNA evidence. The legislation provides $350 million in aid to inmates on death row for legal representation.

How many innocent people are sitting on death row in North Carolina now? How many individuals might be cleared of charges through DNA testing? Through new evidence? Or even through a fair examination of the original evidence, as transpired in the Gell case?

We simply don't know the answer to these questions, but that doesn't mean we should avoid action on this issue. North Carolina must initiate a stay on executions in order to review all the current death row cases.

The DTH editorial board is not taking a stance on the death penalty - it is affirming that the legal and moral rights of an individual on death row matter more than a healthy win-loss record for the prosecution.

A stay on executions will give leaders time to fix the legal system so the innocent aren't put to death. It will restore public faith in a legal system that has failed. It will allow North Carolina to fulfill its duty to its citizens to ensure that a trial is as fair as possible.

The Gell case was a warning, and the leaders of this state would do well to listen to it.

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