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Condemned by antiquated NC capital crime standards
Majority on death row convicted before reforms
 
Published Wednesday, October 10, 2018 8:54 am
by Herbert L. White | The Charlotte Post

Nearly three-quarters of North Carolina’s death row inmates were convicted under laws that are now antiquated, according to a new report.


Seventy-three percent of death row inmates were sentenced before state reforms designed to prevent wrongful convictions, according to a study by the Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation. North Carolina, one of 35 states with capital punishment, has the sixth-largest death row in the nation with 142 prisoners. Eighty-seven percent of the inmates are black.


According to the report, Unequal Justice: How Obsolete Laws and Unfair Trials Created North Carolina’s Outsized Death Row, 73 percent of the state’s death row prisoners were tried before 2001, when the first in a series of criminal justice reforms were enacted. Most of the condemned were sentenced in the 1990s when North Carolina juries sentenced between 25 and 35 people to death annually — and when harsh sentencing laws nationally created a culture of mass incarceration.


“Today, we are living in a different world from when these men and women were sent to death row,” said Gretchen Engel, executive director at CDPL, a non-profit law firm that represents North Carolina’s death row prisoners. “Public support for the death penalty is at a 50-year-low, and North Carolina has stopped executing people. Juries now see life without parole as a harsh and adequate punishment for the worst crimes. The fact is, if these people on death row had been tried under modern laws, most of them would be serving life without parole sentences instead of facing execution.”


North Carolina hasn’t carried out an execution since 2006 and hasn’t handed down a death sentences this year. Only one person has received a death sentence in the past four years.


Details about North Carolina’s death row population include:


• 131 inmates, or 92 percent, were tried before a 2008 package of reforms intended to prevent false confessions and mistaken eyewitness identifications, which have been leading causes of wrongful convictions across the country. The new laws require interrogations and confessions to be recorded in homicide cases and set strict guidelines for eyewitness line-up procedures.


• 119 inmates (84 percent) were tried before a law granting defendants the right to see all the evidence in the prosecutor’s file — including information that might help reduce their sentence or prove their innocence.


• 104 defendants, or 73 percent, were sentenced before laws barring the execution of inmates with intellectual disabilities. Despite a promise of relief for these less culpable defendants, disabled prisoners remain on death row.


• 103 inmates (73 percent) were sentenced before the creation of a statewide indigent defense agency that improved the quality of representation, and passage of a law that required pursuit of capital punishment in every aggravated first-degree murder. Previously, prosecutors had no recourse to a lesser sentence and the poor were left exposed to sub-standard defense.


Many of the reforms came in response to a slew of exonerations both in North Carolina and around the country, which exposed an epidemic of innocent people on death row. Nine death sentenced men have now been exonerated in North Carolina. Most recently, North Carolina’s longest-serving death row inmate, Henry McCollum, proved his innocence with DNA evidence in September 2014.


“Despite many important reforms, our capital punishment system still makes mistakes,” said Barry Scheck, co-director and co-founder of the Innocence Project. “But during the years when most of North Carolina’s death row prisoners were sentenced, the system was absolutely stacked against poor people on trial for their lives. We’re talking about people whose defense attorneys came to court drunk, people who never saw evidence that might have proven their innocence, people who were convicted on the basis of a tainted eyewitness identification that would never be admissible in court today. They never had a chance at justice, and some of them might be innocent.”


Reforms outlined in the report were meant to prevent the sentencing of innocent people. For example, a reform requiring the recording of interrogations and confessions would have prevented McCollum’s coerced confession, which was written by law enforcement officers, from being used to convict him.

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