As 2016 comes to an end, the death penalty has become little more than a charade in North Carolina. The state passed the decade mark with no executions, and sentenced just one new person to death this year. The national trends were the same.
Yet, our state continues to spend millions each year to maintain the sixth largest death row in the nation — 150 aging people, the vast majority of whom have been there for more than a decade, with no executions on the horizon.
Almost half of North Carolina’s death row inmates are over 50 now, and 21 of them are 60 or older. Two inmates died of natural causes this year, bringing the total of natural deaths to six in the past five years.
As CDPL’s Gretchen Engel put it, “Our death row is becoming a costly warehouse for the elderly.”
The truth is, were executions to resume in North Carolina, our citizens would be deeply uncomfortable with the 15-, 20-, even 30-year-old death sentences that would be first in line to be carried out. Most of the people on death row would not even have received death sentences, had they been tried under today’s starkly different laws.
Their sentences were handed down during an era when N.C. had one of the highest death sentencing rates in the nation, ahead of even Texas and Florida. An era when North Carolina was the only state in the nation that forced prosecutors to go after death sentences in all aggravated first-degree murder cases, even when other factors — mental illness, a minor role in the crime, severe childhood trauma, intellectual disability — called out for mercy.
This policy, which has never been attempted in any other state, led to a Wild West atmosphere in which North Carolina held unprecedented numbers of capital trials and cavalierly sent dozens of people a year to death row.
Today, the story is vastly different. The public has watched nine innocent people be released from North Carolina’s death row. In the overwhelming majority of cases, prosecutors and juries reject the death penalty in favor of life without parole. In 2016, there were five capital trials but just one death sentence — and that was the only new person sent to death row in the past two years.
It’s time to face reality, North Carolina. Most of the people who have languished on North Carolina’s death row for decades could be punished just as effectively, and much more cheaply, with a sentence of life without parole.