07/15/05 — Trial tests death penalty support

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Trial tests death penalty support

By News-Argus Staff
Published in News on July 15, 2005 1:48 PM

The death penalty handed down to Eric Lane this month in Wayne County Superior Court has tested some residents' support for a campaign to halt executions in the state.

Legislators have been asked to impose a moratorium on executions. Enough death-row inmates have been freed by DNA evidence to warrant a halt until current laws can be reviewed, advocates say. A national debate on the death penalty has raged for months, with the state of Illinois the first to impose such a moratorium. In Wayne County, a group of ministers met recently to support the moratorium.

The Rev. Art Evans of Mt. Cavalry Baptist Church said the Lane verdict puts another spin on the issue for Wayne residents. Lane was convicted of raping and murdering a 5-year-old girl, Precious Whitfield.

Evans said he believes most of the members of his congregation support the death penalty for Lane. But many of them still think executions should be halted until the legal system is examined, he said.

"It was a horrific death, and we certainly can't overlook that," said Evans. But he noted that forgiveness is a major tenet of Christianity.

"When Jesus was crucified, he asked God to 'forgive them for they know not what they do,'" Evans said. "Taking a life doesn't really give a life. We ought to forgive them. The moratorium would be in line with Jesus Christ to forgive them."

Evans pointed to Terence Garner, whose murder conviction was reversed in 2002 in Johnston County after new evidence came to light. When people are falsely accused, he said, "it affects the whole community."

District Attorney Branny Vickory, who prosecuted Lane, opposes the moratorium because of legal safeguards designed to ensure that death-row defendants get treated fairly.

One safeguard is the 8th Judicial District's long-standing open-file policy. Vickory's predecessor, Don Jacobs, opened his files for defense lawyers years before the legislature mandated open files in capital murder cases. Vickory has followed Jacobs' policy.

"Hopefully this will be a reason that we don't have a problem with any old cases," Vickory said.

Since 1996, defense lawyers have been able to view prosecution files after a death sentence. Convicted of murder, Alan Gell got a new trial after it was discovered that prosecutors withheld evidence that could have helped him. Vickory said that led to Gell's new trial and subsequent acquittal.

Last year the legislature went a step further and established an open-file policy before capital murder trials.

"That's a good example of how the D.A.'s conference is working to make the system more acceptable," Vickory said.

The state has also provided an almost unlimited amount of money for defense lawyers for defendants in capital cases, Vickory said. The state paid for Lane's first lawyer to fly twice to Alaska to interview Lane's birth mother.

Lane's lawyers also hired mental retardation and psychological experts to testify in his sentencing hearing. But Lane asked his lawyers not to put on defense, and they never testified.

"That shows the kind of money the state is putting into assuring that no innocent person is executed," Vickory said. "We feel like we've addressed the real issues out there."

A bill in the state House calling for a two-year study of the death penalty was amended this week, removing language that sought a two-year moratorium on executions. House bill 529 would permit executions during the study, but allow offenders to apply for a stay under certain conditions.

Vickory said the proposal is the same thing as a moratorium.

"It's written in such a way that everybody who comes up for execution in the next two years will get a moratorium," he said.

The district attorney said the groups pushing for a moratorium "really want the abolition of the death penalty."

Vickory said each capital case is heard by 12 jurors and then a minimum of 47 judges, on state and federal benches, review the case. Any one judge can look at a case and send it back for a new trial.

"When it gets thrown back," Vickory said, "it's not because the defendant is innocent, but it's because an error was committed in the prior stages."

The issue, Vickory said, "is a legitimate question that society needs to address to decide whether they want a death penalty."

Prior to Lane, there were 176 offenders on death row, according to the N.C. Dept. of Correction. Two inmates are from Wayne County. Marvin E. Williams has served since January 1995 for first-degree murder. Paul A. Brown has served since August 2000 for first-degree murder.

Between 1921 and 1946, there were eight Wayne residents executed at Central Prison in Raleigh. From 1962 to 1983, there were no executions in North Carolina.

Three death row inmates from Wayne have had their sentences commuted, and another died in custody in April 2002.