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December 30, 2008

Effective reporting on the decline of death in North Carolina

This local article, headlined "In N.C., death penalty gets rarer," provides a very effective accounting of the slow and steady decline of the death penalty in North Carolina.  Here are highlights of an article that should be a must-read for everyone who seriously follows the administration of capital punishment:

North Carolina will finish this year with just one defendant sentenced to death, a record low since the penalty was reinstated 31 years ago. The single capital murder conviction this year continues a downward trend fueled by better criminal defense lawyers and new laws that exclude the mentally challenged and make prosecution evidence more accessible.

In North Carolina, more people on death row have been exonerated this year -- two -- than were sentenced to death. A de facto death penalty moratorium in North Carolina -- as the courts, state officials and the medical profession debate the ethics of lethal injections -- has prevented anyone from being executed for the past two years.

This year, 13 juries could have chosen death for defendants. Only one in Forsyth County did. Last month, a jury there gave the death sentence to James Ray Little III for shooting a cab driver to death two years ago in Winston-Salem. There will be no more capital murder trials before Wednesday, the end of the year....

The numbers suggest that juries are less likely to impose the ultimate punishment. In 1996, there were 60 capital trials resulting in 34 death sentences in North Carolina. The decline in death sentences is a national trend, but North Carolina's is among the most pronounced, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C....

Tom Horner, president of the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys, said the de facto moratorium might be influencing prosecutors' decisions to seek life without parole instead of the death penalty. Capital murder cases are much more expensive and time consuming, he said, because defendants are entitled to additional services that include more expert witnesses and test juries. "It's just a tremendously different beast than just trying someone non-capitally," said Horner, the district attorney for Alleghany, Ashe, Wilkes and Yadkin counties.

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December 30, 2008 at 12:31 PM | Permalink


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The decline in numbers of juries returning death sentences in NC is all the more remarkable given that it occurs in a justice system that allows prosecutors to systematically exclude from capital juries all citizens who oppose the death penalty.

Makes one wonder about those polls showing that a majority of Americans favor the death penalty (when the question is asked in the abstract). It seems to me that when juries consider the question in the context of a particular set of facts (including the particular life circumstances of a defendant), juries are overwhelmingly anti-death-penalty -- and they would be all the more so if not for the silly, stupid, anti-democratic rule that allows the State to exclude death penalty opponents from that otherwise most democratic of institutions -- the criminal trial jury.

Posted by: dm | Dec 30, 2008 11:22:31 PM

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