RALEIGH — The president of the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys said Monday that he supported a moratorium on the execution of any death-row inmates whose cases include evidence from the State Bureau of Investigations crime labs.
Seth Edwards, head of the organization of prosecutors and a district attorney in Eastern North Carolina, said he still had faith in the North Carolina justice system. But he acknowledged that some might have doubts after a recent blistering audit of the SBI's blood analysis unit highlighted a common practice of withholding test results that might have helped defendants.
"Personally, I do feel like from a justice standpoint, we need to make sure the issues are resolved in the SBI crime lab," Edwards said. "I just feel like the public right now is skeptical."
Edwards comments came the same day that defense lawyers, scholars, a rape victim and two men who served time in prison for crimes they did not commit came together in Raleigh to talk about problems plaguing the justice system.
By highlighting the findings of the SBI crime lab audit and recent studies showing racial disparities in jury selection and sentencing in capital cases, the advocates for the wrongly convicted suggested a sweeping conversation about the role of race in the justice system and an overhaul of the SBI system.
The group announced that its members had joined the legal battle of Melvin Lee White, one of 152 death row inmates using the state's fledgling Racial Justice Act to challenge his sentence.
The year-old law, one of only two in the country, allows judges to consider statistics and anecdotal trends of racial disparities in death sentences, as well as testimony, to change a death sentence to life in prison without parole.
White, who was sentenced to death in 1996 for killing an elderly Craven County woman and her boyfriend, is seeking to have his death sentence converted to life without the possibility of parole.
White ended up on death row more than a decade before scientists and the courts began questioning the credibility of studying bullets and guns to solve crimes. All that linked the inmate to the slayings was a trail of bullets that stretched across the country and an SBI analyst's word that they all came from a single gun.
White, throughout, has maintained his innocence. He was never found with a gun, and detectives never recovered any firearms in the case.
Though his lawyers have been working to win a new trial, using arguments that the science used to put the inmate on North Carolina's death row is unreliable and potentially inaccurate, he has not been granted a hearing.
Stats on racial bias
This month, White joined most of the state's inmates on death row - the seventh largest in the country - seeking relief from executions on claims that racial bias played a part in their trials and sentences.
The inmates are using new statistics in their bias claims.
Recent studies have found that qualified blacks have been excluded from capital trial juries at disproportionate rates. The studies also found that more than 40 percent of North Carolina's 159 death row inmates were tried by juries that were all-white or had only one black member.
Since 2007, three of North Carolina's death row inmates have been exonerated - all of them black men. Since 1973, six of seven exonerated death row inmates were minorities.
Darryl Hunt and Ronald Cotton, two men who spent years in prison before they were exonerated, lent their support to White's appeals. Though it was DNA evidence and science that proved to be the great diviners of innocence in their cases, each spoke of the pain of having to wait for those truths to be discovered.
"The greatest quote was 'truth crushed to the earth will rise again,'" Hunt said.
Mark Rabil, co-director of the Wake Forest University School of Law's Innocence & Justice Clinic, which filed a brief in support of White's case, said the SBI has tried for years to "dupe" the public with lab results that do not meet scientific standard set for forensics.
"Truth is transparent," Rabil said. "We now know that just because your wear a badge and carry a gun doesn't mean you tell the truth."
Edwards, the district attorney from Beaufort, Hyde, Martin, Tyrrell and Washington counties, said he thought neither an overhaul of the justice system nor a sweeping conversation about the role of race was warranted.
"Personally, the suggestion about a conversation about race, that's offensive to me," Edwards said. "That I would take some action based on a person's race, that's offensive. Does racism exist in this country, in this state? No question. Whether racism comes into play in the justice system, all I can speak to is what Seth Edwards does. We look at the facts of the case, not race."
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