Editorials

Moore and Berger play politics with the NC death penalty

Speaker of the House Tim Moore, left, and Senate Pro Tem Phil Berger say the killings of prison workers show the need to make North Carolina’s stalled death penalty active again.
Speaker of the House Tim Moore, left, and Senate Pro Tem Phil Berger say the killings of prison workers show the need to make North Carolina’s stalled death penalty active again. cseward@newsobserver.com

The fact that North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President pro-tem Phil Berger are lawyers makes their latest political gambit against Gov. Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein all the more shameless.

The two legislative leaders have called on Cooper and Stein to restart the death penalty in the wake of deaths of prison workers in Pasquotank Correctional Institution. Four inmates are charged in the deaths, and prosecutors in Pasquotank say they’ll seek the death penalty.

But for Moore and Berger to act as if Cooper and Stein, both of whom support the death penalty, are standing between criminals and the death penalty is absurd. Neither the governor nor the AG can restart the death penalty, which is under legal challenge on a multitude of grounds, as it is in many states. That’s why no one has been put to death by the state in more than 10 years. Some of the challenges have to do with the method of execution. Then there are the objections of doctors who don’t want to participate in the taking of a life.

The best decision on the death penalty would be to end it. Life without parole is a punishment of supreme consequence and suffering. And should someone convicted of a capital crime be found to be innocent – something that has happened – a punishment can be corrected if that punishment is something short of death.

The point here, though, is that the legislative leaders are so eager to knock on Cooper and Stein, two popular, extremely competent Democrats, that they’ll demagogue the death penalty when they know that as long as legal challenges are pending, the death penalty can’t be restarted as if the task were just like turning on a light switch.

Legislative leaders could do something constructive to boost prison safety, however. Instead of cutting virtually all agencies in state government (again, done in part to hurt the Cooper administration’s ability to serve the people who toppled a Republican to put Cooper into office), they could introduce legislation to boost salaries for prison guards and other personnel and thus make it possible to draw more people into that line of work.

More guards, better paid, would translate directly – directly – into safer prisons. Some of the problems in that state’s prisons have had to do with inmates getting the drop on guards at a time when additional guards would have prevented that situation.

The crisis in prisons certainly could be interpreted as an emergency, one that could be addressed by the state’s rainy day fund, now at an astounding $1.8 billion. Lawmakers who complain they can’t go to the fund for something like prisons are insulting the intelligence of the people. Lawmakers could pass needed legislation to approve that money quickly – if they took some time off from attacking Cooper and Stein and instead decided to work with them.

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