More instances of prosecutorial misconduct reinforce case for death sentence moratorium

The General Assembly adjourned for the year without passing a moratorium on the death penalty to give the state of North Carolina time to examine its practices and procedures and to determine whether it administers the ultimate punishment fairly and only in cases where guilt is incontrovertible.

Meanwhile, evidence continues to mount that people have been sent to death row in North Carolina following trials that were a travesty of justice.

The N.C. State Bar recently charged two former prosecutors with misconduct in the 1996 Union County trial of Jonathan Hoffman, who was sentenced to death after being convicted of killing the owner of a discount jewelry store in 1995.

Hoffman was granted a new trial in 2004 after his lawyers accused prosecutors of withholding information, using false evidence at trial and altering documents before submitting them to a judge for review.

One of Hoffman's prosecutors admitted during a hearing that information about a deal with the primary witness against Hoffman was withheld from his attorneys, but he denied the other allegations.

The N.C. Bar apparently found the evidence strong enough to charge former Union County District Attorney Kenneth Honeycutt and his assistant, Scott Brewer, who is now a district court judge based in Rockingham, with committing 23 violations of the rules that govern trial lawyers, including lying to the trial judge, jury and defense lawyers and knowingly using false evidence at Hoffman's trial.

If they are found guilty of the misconduct allegations in a hearing before the bar, they could be punished by anything from a written reprimand to the loss of their law licenses.

Hoffman spent seven years on death row. He was the sixth North Carolina inmate to receive a new trial because of prosecutorial misconduct.

The state Senate passed a moratorium bill two years ago, but it failed in the House. This year the House couldn't even pass a watered down version that would have conducted a study without implementing a moratorium.

There are those in the General Assembly who oppose a moratorium because they think it is only a prelude to a complete ban on the death penalty. It is undoubtedly true that many of those who support a moratorium hope to eventually eliminate the death penalty entirely. But the decision about whether we resume executions following a moratorium is one for another day.

The kind of prosecutorial behavior with which Honeycutt and Brewer are charged so completely undermines the public's confidence in the court system that a moratorium and thorough study of how justice is carried out in death penalty cases is essential.

Otherwise, none of North Carolina's citizens can be confident that the state is not, for all practical purposes, killing innocent people in their name.