Sill a flawed system

Sill a flawed system

- in Fitzsimon File

Buried in the 41-page bill that lists the subjects that state lawmakers might study before the next legislative session convenes in January is a reminder of an issue that the General Assembly ignored this year, the fairness of capital punishment in North Carolina.

The study bill lists racial bias and the death penalty as of one the issues that the Legislative Research Commission may study. Legislative leaders will make the final decision but the role of race of the administration of capital punishment ought to be examined closely.

It is just one of the problems with the death penalty that has come to light in recent years that prompted the Senate to pass a two year moratorium on executions in 2003.

The House never took up the moratorium that session, but last year moratorium supporters tried again and the bill passed a House committee, but never came up for a vote on the House floor.  

This year, lawmakers established the Innocence Inquiry Commission, an extra avenue available for all inmates with legitimate claims of innocence, not just death row inmates. That’s a step in the right direction, but it won’t capture all the cases of innocence on death row and innocence is far from the only problem.

Misconduct by prosecutors who have hidden evidence has prevented fair trials. Race has unfairly influenced death penalty cases. Defendants have been represented by lawyers who were incompetent or worse.

One death row inmate was represented by an appointed attorney who the jury knew had been to federal prison on child pornography charges, yet the state claims the defendant received a fair trial.

Case after case points to the unfairness of the system that is supposed to guarantee fair trials and reserve the death penalty for the worst of the worst of the offenders. The scheduled execution of Samuel Flippen on August 18th provides compelling evidence again that the system is not living up to those principles.

Flippen is set to be killed for the 1994 murder of his two-year-old stepdaughter Britnie Hutton. Flippen called 911 on the day of Britnie’s death, evidence that he did not premeditatively take her life.  Flippen had no other violent history and mental health experts have said that he poses no risk of  further violence.

Britnie’s father does not want Flippen to be executed and many members of his church and community don’t either and are asking Governor Mike Easley to stop the execution and commute his sentence to life without parole.

Maybe most importantly, prosecutors didn’t think Flippen deserved the death penalty and initially offered to let him plead guilty to second degree murder. After he refused they sought the death penalty.

Samuel Flippen should never get out of prison, but he shouldn’t be executed either. The prosecutors were right the first time.

His case is another example of how random and arbitrary the death penalty is and why it’s time to stop executions for two years to address the obvious problems in the system that determines who lives and who dies.

About the author

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.