Today, years of battle over the death penalty will come to a head as the North Carolina House will vote on whether to pause executions for two to three years -- a move endorsed by hundreds of municipalities and organizations across the state, and across the ideological spectrum.

The bill would set up a study commission to examine, among other things, racial bias in death sentencing, lack of representation for capital defendents, and the fact that at least four people in North Carolina (out of over 100 nationally) have been freed from death row after being proven innocent.

If the measure passes the house, it will likely pass the Senate, which voted for a similar bill two years ago. That would put a moratorium on the desk of Gov. Mike Easley, the former state Attorney General and staunch proponent of death sentences (he has refused to say whether or not he'll veto).

At one point in the debate, Rep. Debbie Clary, a Cherryville Republican, turned toward moratorium advocates in the audience and asked, "Why in the name of God haven't you been studying instead of lobbying [for a moratorium]?"

It was a bizarre question, implying that the advocacy groups hadn't been studying the problems with death sentences in North Carolina (they had) and that the state as a whole had no obligation to investigate the fairness of its sentencing procedures.

"It's not a question of whether or not problems exist; it's a question of whether we will fix it," said Alan Gell, who spent nine years in prison for murder, half of that on death row. He was acquitted at retrial after it was revealed that his initial prosecutors had withheld evidence casting doubt on their case. "I have a real good reason to not believe in the death penalty: It almost killed me."