Editorial: Death penalty review due

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 2, 2007

The state’s death penalty mechanism has screeched to a halt at an opportune time for James A. Campbell. Slated to be executed five days from today, Campbell, 45, now faces the best chance yet that he won’t die for his crime — the best chance since he raped and stabbed 20-year-old Katherine Price to death in Rowan County in 1992.

Campbell met Price as she and a friend were walking to a store near her Trailer City home on Airport Road. The next day, he flagged Price down for a ride, and that was the beginning of her end. She died with 21 stab wounds in her neck and throat and was left naked in a field to rot.

Campbell, who contended that a jealous girlfriend committed the crime, was about 30 at the time and had spent most of the previous 13 years behind bars. He escaped from a South Carolina prison and raped a woman at one point and nearly escaped again when he broke out a window in the Rowan County courthouse.

This is not the type of case that gives officials much pause as it crawls through the appeals process. People who commit crimes like Campbell’s are the ones who make the death penalty acceptable to the general public. But that acceptance may be weakening. A dozen states no longer have the death penalty, a shift some attribute to lower crime rates in recent years and a softening of attitudes toward crime. Another factor is growing awareness that some death row inmates have been exonerated — more than 120 across the nation since 1973.

Overall support for the death penalty in the United States has fallen from 80 percent in 1994 to 65 percent in 2006, according to Gallup poll data. Given a choice of life without parole as an alternative sentencing option, slightly more respondents chose life (48 percent) than the death penalty (47 percent).

Technically, the postponement of Campbell’s execution and two others stems from the state Medical Board’s ethics policy prohibiting doctors from participating in executions and a subsequent judge’s ruling. The Council of State might decide next week that a technician or nurse could perform some of the medical duties at executions, instead of a doctor. But if this technicality snags the death penalty this month, others will come up in the months ahead. The General Assembly should impose a moratorium while it takes stock of the situation and updates the law.

The death penalty is not a deterrent to cruelty and murder. It’s simply the ultimate penalty. While cases like Campbell’s reinforce support for the death penalty, exonerations and complications shake confidence that society can administer the death penalty fairly and without killing an innocent person. Law-abiding citizens aren’t completely comfortable with making a decision that could cost another person his or her life. Just ask a district attorney who has tried to seat a jury on a death penalty case. If there is any doubt at all — and there seems to be a growing mountain of it — the state cannot proceed with the death penalty without a full review and debate. Not even to deal with a cold-blooded murderer like James A. Campbell.