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December 10, 2012

Is the death penalty now essentially dead in North Carolina?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy and thorough article from the Fayetteville Observer, which is headlined "Capital punishment under close scrutiny in Fayetteville, statewide."  Here are excerpts:

Convicted murderer Marcus Robinson of Fayetteville was hours away from execution in 2007.  But his life was spared by a court-ordered stay to give him and other death row inmates a chance to challenge the constitutionality of the state's method of execution.  The delay turned into an unofficial moratorium on executions that nearly six years later remains unresolved in the courts.

For Robinson, the delay provided enough time to save him from the executioner's needle. This year, he became the first — and, so far, the only — North Carolina death row inmate to use a new law, the Racial Justice Act of 2009, to have his death sentence commuted to life in prison without parole. 

Now, the Racial Justice Act, other changes to death penalty law and a decline in jurors' willingness to sentence inmates to death are raising questions about the future of executions in the state.  It's unclear when the state will resume administering its ultimate punishment.

"It's been over six years now since an execution has been carried out, so we're a state that still has the death penalty as a law but does not have executions as a reality," said Ben David, district attorney in New Hanover County. David is president of the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys and a death penalty supporter....

Since the [state's capital] law took effect, North Carolina juries have sentenced 400 people to die.  The state has executed 43 of them, according to Department of Public Safety data.  The state is tied at ninth place with South Carolina in the total number of executions carried out in the modern era, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington....

According to an Elon University poll, a majority of state residents support the death penalty.  But statistics show a growing reluctance to hand down the penalty in court. In 1999, 24 people were sentenced to death.  In 2009, two were sentenced.  This year, no one has been sentenced to death in the state, and no more capital trials are scheduled this year.  This will be the first year since the 1977 law when no one in the state has been sentenced to die.

Jurors are not as likely these days to hand down a death sentence, said Ken Rose, a lawyer with the Center for Death Penalty Litigation.  In 1994, North Carolina eliminated parole for people sentenced to life in prison.  Rose thinks that when jurors are comfortable that a killer will never go free, they are less prone to vote for death.  Meanwhile, high-profile exonerations in the past 15 years and television dramas that focus on crime labs have made jurors more skeptical of prosecutors and police, Rose said....  "I think people are more aware that the system is not infallible," Rose said. "They're more aware of the flaws in the system. They're more aware that people make mistakes, and law enforcement officials are human beings and they're going to make mistakes like the rest of us."...

And a law that took effect in 2001 led to a steep decrease in death penalty prosecutions. The law allows prosecutors discretion in seeking the death penalty.  Before the law took effect, if any of 11 specified circumstances applied in a murder case — for example, more than one person was killed — prosecutors were required to seek death and could not accept a plea bargain to a life sentence.

Now that prosecutors have the option, they often choose not to pursue capital punishment. Or they may use the threat of the death sentence to push a murder defendant into pleading guilty and accepting life in prison.

December 10, 2012 at 10:31 AM | Permalink

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"71% said they favor the death penalty for first-degree murder convictions.
25% of voters said they oppose it, and
3% said they did not have an opinion."

"[T]his remains a bipartisan issue among North Carolina voters with
83 percent of Republicans,
75 percent of unaffiliated voters, and
61 percent of Democrats in support."
{Civitas Poll: 1/6/11, http://www.nccivitas.org}

Posted by: Adamakis | Dec 10, 2012 11:13:27 AM

"“As you may know, currently no executions for those sentenced to the death penalty can occur due to [legal issues]...Do you favor or oppose allowing executions to resume...?"

Total Favor – 66%
Total Oppose – 29%

{http://www.nccivitas.org}

"You seem, in pages 84 and 148, to consider the judges as the ultimate arbiters of all constitutional questions;
a very dangerous doctrine indeed, and one which would place us under the despotism of an oligarchy...
The Constitution has erected no such single tribunal." {T. Jeff, 1820, Letter to William Jarvis}

Posted by: Adamakis | Dec 10, 2012 11:21:56 AM

The problems raised by the so-called "Racial Justice Act" were in part remedied by its partial repeal (which barely survived the Governor's veto), but can be dealt with expeditiously by the new, more conservative Governor, who takes office next month, and the heavy Republican majorities in the state legislature. They can and should repeal all unreasonable legislative obstacles to imposing a penalty the citizens overwhelmingly continue to want to remain available. See http://www.crimeandconsequences.com/crimblog/2012/12/making-the-most-of-victory.html

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 10, 2012 4:00:56 PM

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