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The Voice of the Black Community

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Jury’s out on efficacy of the death penalty for North Carolina justice
No condemnations in 3 of the last 4 years
Published Wednesday, December 30, 2020 12:00 pm
by Herbert L. White

The death penalty has fallen out of favor with North Carolina juries, with no capital crime convictions resulting in a death sentence in three of the last four years.

Capital punishment is the subject of demands for a review of its use in North Carolina.

For the third time in four years, no one was sentenced to death by a state jury in 2020, a trend that gives capital punishment foes hope that lawmakers and judges will work to eliminate systemic racism in law enforcement and the courts.

North Carolina has not carried out an execution in 14 years while a growing number of the state’s 138 death row prisoners are bringing forward claims of racism in their trials and sentences under the Racial Justice Act.

“This year, our state’s highest court said very clearly that it’s time to stop ignoring racism in the death penalty,” said Gretchen Engel, executive director of the Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation. “It’s time to confront the clear and undeniable evidence that race still determines who is sentenced to death.”

On Dec. 14, the Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice released a study linking capital punishment’s “relationship to white supremacy” and lynching. The panel recommended a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that would study racial disparities in death sentencing, review commutations of death sentences imposed before 2001, and consider replacing the death penalty with a maximum sentence of life without parole. The task force also recommended that the death penalty be prohibited for people with serious mental illness and those under 21 and said juvenile offenses should no longer be used as aggravating factors in death penalty trial.

“Any honest attempt at truth and reconciliation must begin with the acknowledgment that the modern death penalty is rooted in racism,” Engel said. “North Carolina’s death penalty was used first as a tool for enforcing slavery and then to police segregation. It’s no wonder that today we have a death penalty riddled with inequity. From the disproportionate numbers of people of color on death row to the death sentencing of innocent Black men, from the exclusion of African American jurors to the favoring of white victims. If we want to move forward as a society, we must reckon with that.”

In October, CDPL released Racist Roots: Origins of North Carolina’s Death Penalty, a sweeping project that puts the modern death penalty in the context of its history. Dozens of scholars, artists, advocates, and people directly affected by the death penalty contributed to the project, which reveals how racism has shaped and perpetuated the modern death penalty.

The state Supreme Court also recognized in a series of rulings that racism is pervasive in death penalty cases.

The court ruled in June that inmates who filed claims under the Racial Justice Act are entitled to hearings where they can present evidence that prosecutors excluded Black jurors and allowed racial bias tainted their trials. In two separate decisions, the court ruled that four petitioners who proved discrimination under the RJA be removed from death row and resentenced to life without parole. One decision noted North Carolina’s “egregious legacy of the racially discriminatory application” of the death penalty.

“Ending the death penalty is just one small part of what’s needed to finally begin erasing the stain of racism from our criminal punishment system, but it’s an important first step,” Engel said. “As long as the state is still trying to execute people in our names, we cannot say we are serious about rooting out the legacy of slavery and racial terror.”


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