THOMASVILLE, N.C. -- This blue-collar town known for its furniture factories and law-and-order conservatism hardly seems the kind of place that would call for a moratorium on the death penalty.
But Thomasville is among 21 municipalities in North Carolina that have done just that, a gesture that many here say shows that uneasiness over capital punishment extends beyond big cities and liberal enclaves.
Fueled by this grass-roots movement and two recently overturned death sentences, North Carolina's Senate passed a bill this year that would put executions on hold for two years -- edging closer to a moratorium than any other state in the South.
"The times, they are a-changin'," retired Presbyterian minister Curtis Patterson said recently over dinner at the T-Ville Diner, near the railroad tracks that bisect this town of 20,000.
Patterson, who helped write the nonbinding town resolution that passed in 2001, said a temporary moratorium to study the fairness of the death penalty has been easier to sell than a wholesale repeal -- particularly in a state where many politicians' support for capital punishment is reflexive.
"This could be favored by a supporter or an opponent of the death penalty," Patterson said. "Who can oppose the issue of fairness?"
The South has long been the center of capital punishment in America, accounting for 700 of the 854 U.S. executions since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. North Carolina has executed 23 inmates since 1984, more than all but 10 states, almost all of them southern.
North Carolina's Senate vote followed two recent cases in which judges ordered new trials for death row inmates because of prosecutorial misconduct. Gov. Mike Easley, a former attorney general and strong death penalty supporter, has commuted two death sentences to life in prison without parole since he took office in 2001.
The measure is considered a tough sell in the evenly divided House, but if it becomes law, North Carolina would become the third state in the country to suspend executions. Illinois has had a moratorium since 2000 when Gov. George Ryan, alarmed by the number of death row inmates who had been exonerated, called for the temporary ban. Maryland briefly banned executions last year.
Local moratoriums are strictly symbolic in North Carolina -- sentencing is handled in state courts. But the number of people sentenced to death has dropped dramatically here in recent years, from more than 20 a year during most of the 1990s to 14 in 2001, seven in 2002 and zero so far this year.
Resolutions calling for a moratorium weren't unexpected in college towns like Chapel Hill or big cities such as Durham or Charlotte. But drives in Thomasville and other small towns have come to exemplify how the questioning of capital punishment has hit Main Street.
Set next to Interstate 85 about 20 miles southwest of Greensboro, Thomasville is home to the furniture maker of the same name. The county has a reputation for law-and-order, thanks to Sheriff Gerald Hege, who dresses his deputies in paramilitary-style uniforms and his jail inmates in stripes.
Lawyer Charles Lambeth, who helped write Thomasville's resolution, believes it sent a signal to state lawmakers.
"It lets them know that it's not just in the college communities" that people are concerned, he said. "It lets them know that when (a moratorium) is explained in any community, people can see what it's about and understand it."
State Rep. Hugh Holliman, a Democrat whose district includes Thomasville, plans to speak against the moratorium if it reaches the House floor. Holliman's daughter, Suzie, was kidnapped, raped and fatally stabbed in 1985. In 1998, Holliman witnessed the gas chamber execution of her confessed killer.
Holliman said he voted two years ago for the state's ban on executions of the mentally retarded and supports other efforts to reform the death penalty. But he believes a moratorium would be a major step toward abolition of the death penalty.
"I think everybody wants to see a perfect system and nobody wants to see an innocent person put to death, but we have to have a system," he said. "If we don't believe in our jury system, what do we believe in?"
On the Net:
N.C. Department of Correction data: http://www.doc.state.nc.us/DOP/deathpenalty/
People of Faith Against the Death Penalty: http://pfadp.org/moratoriumByCounty.shtml
Death Penalty Information Center: http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/