News&Observer: Editorial: The death penalty shouldn’t survive this

By Bob Kochersberger

“RALEIGH — What is going wrong in North Carolina? I have seen a lot in the 25 years I have lived here, but bit by bit, reports of corruption, ineptitude, indifference and unprofessional behavior have left me wondering whether there’s something in the water.

Take the Highway Patrol – please. How many officers have been forced from their jobs because of moral failings or bad judgment? The men who have been fired for having sex in the cruiser or for hanky-panky on the BlackBerry cast a terrible pall on the majority of hard-working, ethical troopers who struggle to do a good job.

Let’s not forget the director of the Central Regional Hospital in Butner, who used profits from vending machines to commission a flattering portrait of herself and hired her son to work at the hospital, a possible violation of state anti-nepotism rules.

And what about the director of the state school for the deaf in Morganton, who was recently fired after allegations of years of neglect and abuse, and of tolerating a dorm director who just happened to drop in while the girls were taking showers?

Even the hallowed UNC-TV has had its moment out of the sun, announcing the departure of a reporter who apparently was involved in questionable tactics and finances regarding a documentary critical of Alcoa. The station better think twice before it interrupts another doo-wop concert with a fundraising pitch.

The crown jewel in the collection of bad behavior is the State Bureau of Investigation. Its apparent standard of doing forensic work intended to favor the prosecution earned it the No. 3 spot on ABC national news one night last week.

That the SBI would do work with the goal of aiding district attorneys rather than defense lawyers is abhorrent in a system that relies on even-handed treatment of both the prosecution and defense. If the “scientists” examining evidence do so with an agenda, the benighted defendants, many of whom really are guilty, face the added burden of a stacked deck.

That SBI analyst Duane Deaver would concoct lab experiments with the goal of producing the results he wanted, rather than the results that actually reflected reality, is contrary to crucial legal standards and throws the gold standard of ethical prosecution out the window.

I really have no idea what is at the root of these and other instances of failings by agents of the state who should be working for the benefit of all North Carolinians. Isn’t that what public employment is all about? It may be true that similar problems exist in other states, but we have to face these here and now.

Attorney General Roy Cooper said the results of the SBI audit he commissioned were “troubling.” He has a gift for understatement.

The worst of all of this, though, is the unspeakable reality that three men who were executed by the state were convicted after the SBI lab withheld information from the defense that might have mitigated the final, irretrievable sentence. The men likely were guilty, but it is hard to imagine that even the most enthusiastic death penalty advocate would deny them a fair, informed defense.

The only conclusion I can draw is that it is time to end the death penalty in North Carolina. The sentences of the 159 prisoners on death row should be commuted to life. Most of them, 147, already have filed appeals based on racial bias claims, and the likely ramifications will clog the courts for years to come. If those sentences were commuted, the state could save millions of dollars and huge amounts of time.

But more than that, eliminating the death penalty entirely – as 14 states and the District of Columbia have done – will save further time and money and remove any whiff of a chance that an unfairly convicted person could be put to death.

Former Robeson County DA Joe Freeman Britt, who earned a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for obtaining 46 death penalty convictions, achieved that number partly on the strength of his closing arguments, which focused on the final moments of the murder victims. It was theatrical but effective.

Maybe using the same tactic would help persuade the General Assembly to end capital punishment. The legislators should ponder the final moments of each man executed after his defense was hobbled by SBI fraud.

North Carolina faces a huge burden in dealing with the aftermath of the SBI situation, and only the most dramatic response can begin the healing process. Eliminating the death penalty is the first step.”

«The death penalty shouldn’t survive this

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