Asheville City Council

They came together as Jews, Baptists, Catholics, Buddhists and Wiccans. They were young and old, Republican and Democrat, a veritable hodgepodge of people from a city that prides itself on its diversity. But they came before City Council on Jan. 9 as a unified group: People of Faith Against the Death Penalty. And they were asking Council to endorse a resolution calling for a moratorium on executions in North Carolina. More than 100 people filled the Council chambers and spilled out into the hallway, many sporting yellow pro-moratorium stickers. But not every lapel bore a sticker; some had come to speak out against the moratorium.

The crowd waited patiently while Council members ran through a series of uncontroversial public hearings on rezoning and budget issues. A half-hour later, Mayor Leni Sitnick opened the discussion on the moratorium.

The resolution asks the state legislature to impose a moratorium on executions at least until tquestions of fairnes, racial bias, executions of innocent or mentally retarded people, and other concerns can be addressed.

Sitnick noted that it Council’s policy is to forward only unanimously passed resolutions to Raleigh. She said that it was clear, based on previous discussion of the issue in a work session, that the evening’s vote would not be unanimous, adding, “We are unanimous regarding the importance of this issue.”

The mayor asked Council to consider forwarding the resolution to Raleigh anyway, if it passed, reminding everyone that the resolution is about a moratorium, not the death penalty. Council member Brian Peterson reminded his colleagues that most such resolutions are “about a particular bill or law governing a city action. This [resolution] is showing support for an idea.” And Council member Barbara Field asked that if the resolution passed, the vote count should be noted on it.

People of Faith organizer Noel Nickle used her allotted three minutes to report, “We have the support of 17 community groups and over 2,000 petition signers.” She also cited a Charlotte Observer poll in which 62 percent of the respondents favored a moratorium. Frequent City Council critic Fred English spoke in opposition to the resolution, bluntly stating, “These legislators aren’t gonna listen to you — I don’t.”

City resident Carol Dreiling prefaced her comments by stating that she is the survivor of a double murder, which claimed the lives of both her parents and left her with seven bullet wounds. She added: “After I recovered I was full of hate and rage. But in the years since then, I have swum lakes, pounded nails, talked and healed, and I am against the death penalty.” Dreiling asked Council to consider the question of racial bias in death-penalty cases and the possibility that innocent people may be executed, saying, “We need a moratorium to address these issues.”

Assistant District Attorney Kate Dreher — declaring herself a person of faith who supports the death penalty — nonetheless asserted that it isn’t appropriate for Council to address this issue. “If 8,000 Baptists protested outside of City Hall calling for a moratorium on abortion, I would hope this city would send them to Raleigh,” she argued.

Dreher’s presence was of particular interest to Council members in that Dreher’s boss, District Attorney Ron Moore, had sent a letter to Council, the day before the meeting, questioning Council member Ed Hay‘s objectivity because Hay’s former law partners had represented a defendant who received the death penalty sentence. The letter also declared, “I [Moore] am somewhat incredulous since no one who works locally with the criminal justice system has been consulted for information about this issue.” After describing 10 death penalty cases which that his office has successfully prosecuted, Moore wrote that Council needs to “consider the rights of the families of the homicide victims. … And now their own city makes a mockery of the justice that was rendered in their cases by twelve citizens of this community who heard the evidence and followed the law.”

Moore closed the letter by adding, “As a taxpayer, it is my hope that you will spend your time dealing with the business of the City of Asheville rather than getting off on tangents that are really moral proclamations that are not appropriate concerns for Asheville City Council. This sort of conduct sets a bad precedent regarding the next interest group coming before City Council, whatever group it may be.”

Dreher explained that although Moore had written the letter, he felt that it would be futile to attend the meeting, having heard that the vote would be split. Mayor Sitnick responded, “I find it curious that the D.A. had heard it was a done deal.”

Local attorney Frank Goldsmith spoke in favor of the moratorium, arguing that the issue is within the scope of their responsibilities. “The distinction is that a detective employed by you can arrest someone for murder, starting a process that could end up in a death-penalty decision. … We are very much part of the system: The city’s budget funds the Asheville Police Department,” he said.

Council members then shared their opinions. Hay began by refuting Moore’s charge of a conflict of interest. Hay noted that he had successfully defended someone facing the death penalty, which Moore did not mention in his letter. “My client was not convicted, so I guess that doesn’t count in Ron’s mind,” said Hay, adding, “This is the kind of behavior that lends credence to the accusation that the system is driven by personal bias and not by justice.”

Council member Terry Bellamy then made a motion, seconded by Brian Peterson, to adopt the resolution. Vice Mayor Chuck Cloningerstated: “I’m going to vote against it; it’s a very important issue for society, but one for the legislature. My major concern is precedent. … We were elected to pave streets, build parks and greenways: the business of the city.”

Council member Charles Worley sided with Cloninger, saying, “The arguments in support of this are compelling. I have sympathy for a moratorium, but it’s not an issue for this city to take up. I could personally support it, and I might write a letter to the legislature to express that.” Peterson, however, took issue with these points, arguing, “We do have a responsibility, because we have a role in law enforcement. I support the death penalty, but there is evidence that there are problems with the system. I will vote for the resolution. It is an appropriate role for us.”

Field and Bellamy did not comment before the vote. Sitnick closed the debate by saying: “When things are broken, we ask for them to be fixed. … I’m hoping the study will promote a dialogue about how we can truly end violence.” (A legislative study committee in Raleigh is investigating charges of bias in N.C. death-penalty cases.)

In the end, the resolution was adopted 4-3, with Cloninger, Worley and Field opposed. Sitnick then asked Council members whether there was any kind of unanimous request that they could send to Raleigh. Cloninger replied, “I’ll oppose that for the same reason.”

After the vote, Field clarified her position, noting that she opposes the death penalty. “I think it is absurd that we kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong.” But she added, “I have strong feelings about the separation of church and state,” referring to the fact that the resolution was brought before Council by a faith-based coalition.

After the meeting, coalition organizer Nickle commented: “I’m happy with the result. This was not a split vote — this was a majority vote.”

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