Legislation introduced Wednesday aims at streamlining the execution process in North Carolina.
The measure by Sen. Thom Goolsby, R-New Hanover, seeks to make several changes to laws governing the administration and appeal of capital punishment. It also includes doing away with the state's Racial Justice Act.
The 2009 law allows those sent to death row to seek having their sentences commuted to life in prison without the possibility of parole if they can convince a judge racial prejudice played a role in their conviction.
Flanked by prosecutors from across the state, Goolsby decried that none of the 152 inmates on North Carolina's death row have been executed since 2006 due to various state and federal legal appeals.
"Victims' families have suffered for far too long and it's time to stop the legal wrangling and bring them peace and closure, finally, in their cases," said Goolsby, a criminal defense and personal injury lawyer from Wilmington. "We owe it to these families of murder victims across North Carolina to impose the punishment that our laws require."
Though the changes would clearly impact future cases, it was not immediately clear what, if any, effect the new legislation would have on speeding up pending death penalty appeals.
In 2009, a state Supreme Court allowed doctors to oversee executions, as required by state law. A state Medical Board rule had prohibited doctors from doing so. Goolsby's bill would codify that ruling in state law and extend the same protections to nurses and pharmacists.
Last summer, the Republican-controlled legislature overrode a gubernatorial veto to enact changes that sharply weakened the state's Racial Justice Act. Supporters of the act say the 2012 revisions effectively gutted the original law.
But it is still being debated in the courts whether inmates who filed appeals under the 2009 version of the law will have their cases judged under the old standard or the new.
Goolsby's bill would also require the state's attorney general to report to legislators each year on the status of all death penalty appeals in the state and establish a timeline for execution when those appeals are exhausted. The bill also directs the state's Public Safety secretary to develop the "most humane and constitutionally sound" method possible to conduct lethal injections and train a team to carry out executions.
"It does a number of things to make sure we don't have any roadblocks in carrying out justice in this state," said Goolsby, who chairs the Senate committee for justice and public safety appropriations.
Attorney General Roy Cooper said Wednesday his office is working to uphold the death penalty. Many of the current appeals are in federal court, beyond the reach of state legislative action.
"Capital punishment in North Carolina currently faces several legal barriers that our lawyers are fighting in both state and federal courts," said Cooper, a Democrat. "It remains the law of the land and we will continue to do our duty to uphold it."
New Hanover District Attorney Ben David, the current president of state Conference of District Attorneys, reiterated the organization's long opposition to the Racial Justice Act and expressed support for Goolsby's bill. He said other laws and procedures protecting the rights of those accused of murder are sufficient.
"We believe that the safeguards that are in place under the constitutional protections ... ensure that fair process," David said.
The executive director of the Raleigh-based anti-death penalty group Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation said legislators should instead focus on providing better funding for victims' services and equipping law enforcement officers with the resources needed to crack unsolved cases.
"Too much time, talent and treasure goes into the very few cases that ever result in a death sentence," Scott Bass said in a statement. "North Carolina can do far better to serve victims' families than restarting executions."
Goolsby was joined by families of murder victims in unveiling his bill.
Marsha Howell's 17-year-old daughter was slain in 1992 by the girl's boyfriend. Howell's then 15-year-old son was also shot in the head, but survived.
The man convicted of the crime, William Christopher Gregory, has lived on death row since August 1994.
"Who worries about whether the lethal injection makes him suffer a little bit?" said Howell, who is from Mocksville. "Let him suffer! I have suffered for 21 years. And I'm tired."