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North Carolinians at Odds with State Legislators Over Views on the Death Penalty

North Carolinians at Odds with State Legislators Over Views on the Death Penalty

North Carolina Division of Archives and History

In the 2013 legislative session, the legislature passed a bill repealing the 2009 Racial Justice Act, which Gov. McCrory subsequently signed into law. The Racial Justice Act permitted inmates to challenge sentences on the basis of race. Despite the repeal of the Racial Justice Act in 2013, several factors suggest that North Carolinians are moving away from the death penalty.

There are several reasons for the decline in death sentences in North Carolina. Public opinion, high costs and geography have contributed to a decline in the use of the death penalty in North Carolina. Juries are more likely to break with district attorneys and refuse to put the convicted murderers on death row, which is in step with national trends. The Fayetteville Observer editorialized about a decline in sentences in North Carolina. A powerful quote and statistic from Molly Parker’s article addressing Goolsby’s attempt to resumes death sentences states, “Ken Rose agreed. The staff attorney for the Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation said there has been only one death-penalty trial resulting in a death sentence in the last two years compared to an average of 25 a year in the 1990s. That case came in 2013.”

Despite these trends, death penalty proponents, like State Representative Paul Stam, disagrees saying that there is an abating, unstable support for the death penalty in North Carolina, and he is ultimately pushing for legislation to restart executions. Representative Stam referenced polls from Civitas Institute, which revealed a sixty-one percent “total support” for the death penalty. Along with Representative Stam, Senator Thom Goolsby, who sponsored the bill to do away with the Racial Justice Act, is pushing to restart executions. The Racial Justice Act was based on the notion that racial bias improperly influenced jurors’ decisions in death penalty cases. Due to the legal complications encircling lethal injection and the Racial Justice Act repeal, it is unlikely that executions will restart. Despite the rhetoric by Goolsby and other death penalty proponents, there has been an unwavering decline in the number of executions and new death sentences.

Retired judges publically support upholding the Racial Justice Act. Six retired judges, three of which served on the North Carolina Supreme Court, recently filed briefs urging the state high court to uphold rulings that involved commuting the death sentences of three inmates due to a racially-biased jury selection. NAACP filed a brief that mirrors the cases of these three inmates to that of the “Willmington 10,” a group of protestors who had been convicted of burning down a grocery store and was later exonerated. Irving Joyner, a law professor who represented the Wilmington 10 and signed the NAACP brief in the Racial Justice Act cases, said:"What the court has to decide is whether the state of North Carolina feels it's acceptable to execute people who have been tried by a racially biased system." The News and Observer editorialized in favor of the Judge’s perspective of the Racial Justice Act rulings.

Legislators’ attitudes seem to be out of sync with public sentiment on the death penalty.  Despite setbacks, support for alternative sentences is high. The recent downward trend of death sentences in North Carolina mirrors an overall societal shift to abolish the death penalty. North Carolina has contributed to a nationwide decline in executions only sentencing one person in 2013, Mario Andrette McNeill, to be executed. There has been a defacto-moratorium on executions in North Carolina since 2006 when a series of lawsuits began challenging the humanity and fairness or North Carolina’s capital punishment system. There have been fewer than three death sentences per year over the past decade revealing sharp decline in the death sentences from the 1990’s.  The shift away from the death penalty clearly reflects the public’s growing sentiment against the death penalty and parallels a nationwide trend. According to the latest report from the Death penalty Information Center, there were only 79 new death sentences nationwide in 2013. This reflects a clear trend away from the death penalty; in the mid-1990s, new death sentences peaked at 315 sentences a year. In 2013, there were 39 executions versus an exorbitant 98 executions in 1999. The ten percent decrease in executions in 2013, with 39 executions in only nine states, is proof that there is change unfolding.

What the death penalty proponents and opponents seem to have in common is that all agree that the system is broken. North Carolina legislators would be wise to take heed of the example of other states, such as Maryland, which spent years debating and passing “fixes” to their capital punishment system, only to conclude this past year that it is a fatally flawed system that cannot be fixed.  Maryland legislators—after more than a decade of citizen advocacy—voted to abolish the death penalty in 2013.The days of the death penalty in North Carolina are surely numbered as well.

Tags: #lethal injection

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