Not long ago, Arkansas was much like North Carolina. It hadn’t executed a death row inmate in more than a decade, and the death penalty appeared to be quietly fading away. How quickly things change.
Today, Arkansas is fresh off four executions carried out in the space of eight days. One man, Ledell Lee, was killed before the DNA evidence in his case could be tested. He proclaimed his innocence until the end. Another, Kenneth Williams, was seen lurching and jerking as the lethal drugs were administered, raising concerns that his execution was torturous and inhumane.
The message to North Carolina is this:
Those of us who care about justice can never become complacent.
We cannot sit back and trust our leaders to do the right thing.
Before Arkansas, it was easy to think that maybe we didn’t have to worry about the death penalty anymore in North Carolina. Capital trials have become rare, and juries have all but stopped voting for death, sending only one new person to death row in the past two years.
High-profile exonerations, most notably those of Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, have shown us that even the people we thought were the “worst of the worst” are sometimes innocent. In capital cases, we have seen bungled prosecutions, falsified evidence, lying witnesses, and coerced confessions — not to mention documented racial bias.
What’s more, states’ preferred execution drugs have become nearly impossible to find. The few states still trying to carry out lethal injections with a questionable drug cocktail like the one Arkansas used have made national headlines with horrifically botched executions.
In this climate, it makes no sense for North Carolina to get back into the execution game. It didn’t make sense for Arkansas either. Yet, Arkansas’ leaders made a Herculean effort to carry out executions in a hurry, just to beat the expiration dates on their lethal drugs.
In North Carolina, 147 people sit on death row. More than three-quarters of them were sentenced at least 15 years ago, before key reforms intended to ensure fair trials and protect the innocent.
North Carolina’s death penalty is tied up by complex litigation on several fronts, and court orders have put executions on hold. Yet, as long as the death penalty remains on the books in our state, nearly 150 people remain under the threat of execution. Many of our elected leaders would like nothing better than to see them executed.
Those of us who don’t believe the state should be empowered to kill must remain alert and ready. And we must make sure the elected officials who represent us — our state legislators, our district attorneys, our sheriffs — understand that we don’t want to return to killing people. Our system is just too unfair and error-prone.
It’s up to us to make sure North Carolina doesn’t become the next Arkansas.