Back from the dead?

Marcus Robinson is scheduled to die in the pre-dawn hours of Jan. 26. If the 32-year-old is killed that day, he’ll become the youngest person executed in North Carolina since 1977, when a 10-year U.S. Supreme Court-mandated moratorium ended. Robinson’s case involves most of the issues that have fueled a nationwide moratorium movement in recent years — a movement that supporters hope may gain ground in the General Assembly’s next session, which begins Jan. 24.

On Jan. 4, the House Select Committee on Capital Punishment met to hear public comment on a proposed two-year moratorium on executions in the state. Afterward, Rep. Joe Hackney, the committee chair, announced that no further action would be taken until the yet-to-be-determined House speaker appoints new committee members. Concerning the status of the proposed moratorium, Hackney told The News & Observer of Raleigh, “I don’t anticipate much change.”

The state Senate endorsed a moratorium in 2003, but the House has so far declined to vote on the issue. Although the plan would not eliminate death sentences during the hiatus, it would require a careful study of its application and effectiveness to ensure, among other things, that no innocent person is sentenced to death in North Carolina. The results of that study could provide a basis for future legislation. Outgoing Rep. Wilma Sherrill, who remains a committee member until the new session starts, is among those who has opposed such a move.

Rep. Charles Thomas, elected in November to replace Sherrill, shares her views. “I’m interested to hear the study commission’s full findings, but by emotionally focusing on capital punishment, we are doing the public a disservice. Our goal should be no wrongful convictions at all.”

Asked if he sees any qualitative difference between executing and incarcerating an innocent person, Thomas replied, “That’s just emotional froth.”

Two other Western North Carolina legislators, Reps. Susan Fisher and Bruce Goforth, have both endorsed the moratorium, though for different reasons. Although Fisher opposes the death penalty and Goforth supports it, the two have found common ground in the plan to temporarily halt executions by the state.

Director Jeremy Collins of the North Carolina Coalition for a Moratorium sees a chance for change following the November election. “House Speaker Pro Tempore Richard Morgan [a moderate Republican from Moore County] blocked votes in 2004 and 2005,” Collins told Xpress. “It’s worth noting that conservatives often support the moratorium when they see it as a halt to executions rather than [to] sentencing. They don’t mind being fair, even if they support the death penalty itself.” Conservative Republican Joe Boylan will represent Morgan’s district beginning this month.

Noel Nickel, an organizer for the WNC chapter of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, said: “I’m very hopeful that the commission will recommend to the Legislature that they approve the moratorium. I believe our case has been strengthened by the recent exoneration of five death-row inmates [in North Carolina]. The question of innocence is compelling, and we need to look carefully at a system that is so unforgiving in its effect.”

Dead men (and women) walking

Among the 39 states that have a death penalty, North Carolina ranks sixth in the number of people now awaiting execution, with four women and 165 men. Of these prisoners, 93 are black and 63 white; 11 of them were sentenced in WNC. Since 1977, five clemencies have been granted and 43 people have been executed, according to the Center for Death Penalty Litigation. Among the notable executions in North Carolina was that of Kenneth Lee Boyd — the 1,000th in the U.S. since the killing resumed — on Dec. 2, 2005.

In 1967, executions were put on hold nationwide after the Supreme Court agreed to hear a number of appeals. In 1972, the court effectively voided 40 death-penalty statutes, thereby commuting the sentences of 629 death-row inmates around the country. But 39 states proceeded to rewrite their laws, and executions resumed in January 1977, with the execution — by firing squad — of Gary Gilmore in Utah.

Robinson, who is next up for execution in North Carolina, is black, and the man he was convicted of killing was white. Robinson suffers from brain damage caused by early childhood beatings administered by his father. According to Robinson’s defense team, his doctors found that those injuries had “damaged the portion of his brain responsible for planning and impulse control.” The convict’s co-defendant for the same crime received a lesser sentence. Eleven of the 12 jurors who decided his fate were white, and the prosecutors who argued for the death penalty characterized the murder as racially motivated.

Repeated studies in North Carolina and across the country have found that the death penalty is disproportionately meted out to nonwhites, more so when the victim is white, and more often still when the jury is white. The mentally ill have also been found to be disproportionately represented on death row. Similar crimes often result in significantly different sentences, these studies show, and there’s no clear relationship between the severity of a crime and the sentence handed down.

Other recent cases highlight some of the same issues. Guy LeGrande was scheduled to die Dec. 1 for the murder of Ellen Munford, but Judge William R. Bell delayed the execution for 60 days to allow a mental-health evaluation. “Guy LeGrande wore a Superman T-shirt while defending himself at his death penalty trial in 1996,” The News & Observer reported. “He told jurors to ‘kiss my natural black [expletive] in the showroom window of Heilig-Meyers.’ He urged them to ‘pull the damn switch.'” During the trial, LeGrande told jurors that Dan Rather and Oprah Winfrey were guiding his defense via TV broadcasts, and he has recently insisted in court that he’ll be receiving a $3 billion settlement from the state. The all-white jury imposed a death sentence, while Tommy Munford, the white man who hired LeGrande to murder his wife, received a life sentence.

During the same period, convicted murderer Ricky Knight — a white man whose black victim was found castrated, with his penis in his mouth — received a life sentence. Knight will be eligible for parole in the future. And James Burmeister and Malcolm Wright, both avowed neo-Nazi skinheads, gunned down two randomly chosen black victims so Burmeister could qualify for a tattoo crediting him with the racist killing. Both men received life sentences.

In light of such sentencing discrepancies, numerous groups — including the American Bar Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, the League of Women Voters and the NAACP, as well as dozens of North Carolina mayors, former judges and former district attorneys and prosecutors — have spoken out in favor of the moratorium. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have recently joined Illinois Gov. George Ryan in imposing moratoria in their states.

Until executions are halted here, Nickel said the local chapter of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty will continue to hold vigils at downtown Asheville’s Vance Monument at 5 p.m. on the evening before scheduled executions.

For more information, contact Nickel at 252-9912 or the North Carolina Coalition for a Moratorium at (919) 491-2917, or visit


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About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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