ACLU Hails North Carolina Senate for Passing Death Penalty Moratorium Bill

April 30, 2003 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON–The American Civil Liberties Union today applauded the North Carolina Senate for passing a bill to halt executions in the state for two years while state officials conduct a thorough examination of its death penalty system. The North Carolina Senate becomes the first legislative chamber to pass moratorium legislation this year.

Among those testifying in favor of the bill were a father whose daughter was murdered and an attorney who supports the death penalty but has come to doubt the fairness of its application as a result of direct experience with the system.

“The North Carolina Senate’s courageous action continues the groundswell that has been sweeping the nation in recent years,” said Rachel King, State Strategies Coordinator for the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project. “The death penalty is riddled with errors and flaws and people across the country are standing up and saying that when the punishment is death, there is no room for doubt.”

Senate Bill S972 was passed today by a voice vote after the bill was approved out of committee. The Senate committee acted just five days after Judge Michael Beale of Wadesboro overturned the death sentence of Jerry Lee Hamilton and ordered a new trial.

Judge Beale noted that prosecutors withheld crucial evidence that the defense should have had for the 1994 trial. Johnny Knight, Hamilton’s nephew, first confessed to the crime but later recanted and accused Hamilton. Despite a lack of physical evidence linking Hamilton to the killing, prosecutors won a death sentence. When Hamilton’s attorneys began working on his appeal they discovered a letter from Knight to his jailers inviting them to discuss a deal-information the trial lawyers should have had.

Just four months ago, another North Carolina judge threw out Alan Gell’s death sentence after finding that prosecutors and police withheld evidence of the defendant’s innocence. Gell is in prison awaiting either a new trial or release.

“We are thrilled with today’s vote and the leadership shown by the Senate–particularly Senators Daniel Clodfelter and Eleanor Kinnaird,” said Patricia Camp, Executive Director of the ACLU of North Carolina. “The Senate’s ability to put aside personal feelings on the death penalty and focus on the questions of fundamental fairness shows a tremendous amount of courage and should serve as an example to state legislatures across the country.”

More than 500 groups in North Carolina have called for a moratorium on executions, including 21 local governments and most of the state’s major newspapers. The Maryland Senate narrowly defeated a similar bill by a single vote in March. Moratorium bills were introduced in 18 states this year, and are still pending in 13 of them.

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