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NC juries pass on capital punishment for second straight year
No executions for the 12th straight year
Published Monday, December 17, 2018 7:22 am
by Herbert L. White | The Charlotte Post

Death sentences are becoming increasingly rare in North Carolina.

For the second straight year, and third in four, no jury imposed a death penalty in the state, the first time in modern history that’s happened in two consecutive years. There were three capital trials in North Carolina in 2018, an in each case, juries in Wake, Lee, and Scotland counties opted for life without parole instead of death sentences.

North Carolina has not executed anyone since 2006.

“The death penalty in North Carolina has become a relic,” said Gretchen Engel, executive director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation and a defense attorney for death row prisoners. “Very few district attorneys seek death anymore and, when they do, juries reject it. The people of our state are speaking very clearly. We no longer need the death penalty to keep North Carolina safe.”

National trends point a shift away from capital punishment. Washington became the 20th state to abolish capital punishment. A Gallup poll showed that, for the first time, a majority of Americans believe the death penalty is applied unfairly. Eight states carried out executions, and the number of death sentences and executions are near all-time lows. At the same time, estimates showed that the U.S. murder rate was on track for its biggest decline in five years, providing more evidence that there is no connection between crime deterrence and the death penalty.

Wake County, which has two capital trials on dockets next year, is the only county in North Carolina that has sought the death penalty each of the past three years. Since 2016, Wake has a third on North Carolina’s 12 capital trials. No other county – including Mecklenburg, the state’s most populous – had more than one, and 90 of North Carolina’s 100 counties had none during that period.

Although Wake prosecutors seek death sentences, juries have opted for life without parole at nine straight capital trials and have not imposed a capital punishment for more than a decade.

Capital trials are costly to taxpayers, too, with defense costs averaging four times more than in non-capital trials. According to N.C. Indigent Defense Services, defense costs in Wake’s past nine capital trials have averaged nearly $350,000 per case, or $2.4 million total if the death penalty hadn’t been sought. The costs for prosecutors, judges, and courts involved in capital trials would add more expense because of their length and complexity.

“Our state is throwing away taxpayer money away every time there’s a capital trial,” Engel said. “We spend four times as much to end up with the same result we could have gotten with a non-capital trial, a sentence of life without parole. We should respect what our juries are telling us and stop death penalty prosecutions.”

North Carolina houses the sixth-largest death row in America with 140 prisoners. The majority were tried in the 1990s, before a series of reforms that transformed the death penalty by, among other things, providing an adequate defense to poor defendants, ensuring that people facing the death penalty could examine all the evidence against them, and setting protocols for police lineups and confessions to prevent suspects from being wrongly convicted.

Two inmates were removed from death row this year because of evidence of mental incapacity that was not revealed at trial. James Morgan is now serving life without parole, and Juan Rodriguez due a sentencing hearing. Another inmate, Rowland Hedgepeth, died of natural causes.

The N.C. Supreme Court agreed this year to review the cases of four prisoners who appealed their sentences based on racial discrimination. Oral arguments will be held next year.


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