First Posted: 1/15/2009
LUMBERTON -- District Attorney Johnson Britt would rather be safe than sorry.
With that in mind, Britt's office has reindicted 15 people who were charged in Robeson County with first-degree capital murder. The new indictments list aggravating circumstances that support the death penalty.
Britt said that his office issued the new indictments after the state Supreme Court on Jan. 22 granted Henry Lee Hunt, who is 58, a stay of execution -- less than 35 hours before he was scheduled to be executed for killing two people in Robeson County in 1984.
Hunt's lawyers are trying to get the Supreme Court to agree that his indictment was defective because it did not list aggravating factors. Aggravating factors -- such as, when a defendant has a prior conviction of violence, or is paid to commit the murder -- are used by the prosecution to argue in favor of the death penalty. In Hunt's case the aggravating factors were that Hunt was paid to commit the murder and that he killed a witness to the murder, Britt said.
Mitigating factors -- such as a defendant with no significant criminal history or a defendant who committed the murder while mentally impaired -- are used by the defense as reasons a defendant should not be executed.
The N.C. Supreme Court heard Hunt's case on April 8, and Britt said he doesn't expect the court to rule until August. Britt was in court for the hearing, but did not argue before the court. Assistant Attorney General William Hart argued for the state and Steven Holley of New York argued for Hunt.
Britt said the new bills of indictment were drawn up as a precautionary measure in case the Supreme Court rules in Hunt's favor.
“If Hunt wins, the most he could receive is life in prison,” Britt said.
If Hunt wins, he could be eligible for parole because when he was sentenced, there was no life in prison without the opportunity of parole law in North Carolina.
“If he wins, it changes the way that death penalty cases are treated all across the state, and more than 200 inmates on death row,” Britt said.
Each of those 200 inmates would have the same arguments that Hunt does. Britt said they could have their death sentences vacated and have life sentences imposed if Hunt wins.