When Executions Happen Unjustly
Most North Carolinians may still favor the death penalty in theory. But they would rather not have it at all than see it applied unjustly.
That would appear to be the lesson to glean from a new public-opinion poll. Conducted by Public Policy Polling, it found that 68 percent of those questioned agreed that the state should stop executions until it resolves the troubling questions about the handling of blood evidence by the State Bureau of Investigation.
We continue to believe that North Carolina should get out of the business of capital punishment - a custom America shares with a dwindling number of countries including the likes of North Korea and Iran. In fact, our state already has a good start toward a total ban, having put no one to death since 2006.
Evidence Tampered With
Barring total abolishment of this barbaric practice, North Carolina should at least make sure that its courts aren't applying it on the basis of tampered-with evidence. That is not all clear in the light of last year's revelations - resulting largely from investigative reporting by The News & Observer of Raleigh - that the SBI withheld or misrepresented the results of laboratory blood tests in more than 200 cases.
It was disturbingly evident in all too many cases that SBI technicians thought they were there not to serve the cause of impartial justice but rather to help prosecutors gain convictions.
Responding to another question asked in the Public Policy poll, 58 percent said they also opposed going through with executions in cases where judges determined that the convictions were influenced by racial bias.
The existence of such situations in the past helped bring about the passage of the Racial Justice Act in 2009. Under that law, death row inmates can argue that racial bias played a role in their prosecution and/or sentencing. Those who succeed can have their death sentences reduced to life in prison without parole.
The Ultimate Injustice
Anyone aspiring to see the death penalty abolished in North Carolina can probably lay those hopes aside, now that the Republicans have gained control of both houses of the General Assembly as a result of last fall's election. The existence of the Racial Justice Act itself may also be on shaky ground. GOP legislators unanimously opposed the bill when it was enacted, and they may take advantage of their newfound power to revoke it. This would be a regrettable mistake.
Understandably, some observers will question the results of the latest survey on executions, especially given the fact that earlier polls mostly found North Carolina voters in favor of the death penalty. The sponsors of the new survey were a coalition of groups, including the Fair Trial Initiative, whose own leanings on the subject are no secret. But the groups insist that their poll was unbiased. Of the 517 North Carolina voters surveyed, they say 80 percent identified themselves as moderate or conservative. Half said they voted for John McCain in 2008.
The results don't seem surprising to us. If conservatives traditionally abhor anything, it is - or should be - the unjust death of an individual at the hands of all-powerful government.
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