Just three people have been sentenced to death in North Carolina in the past five years. But even with the number of death sentences slowed to a trickle, our state still can’t get it right.
Last week, the N.C. Supreme Court overturned the sentence of Juan Rodriguez, who was sentenced to death in 2014 in Forsyth County. The court said there was ample evidence that Rodriguez had intellectual disabilities and mental illness that impaired his ability to understand his actions or make rational decisions — factors that should have moved the jury to spare him from the death penalty.
Yet, the jury was not instructed to consider Rodriguez’s serious intellectual and mental disabilities. Had they been told to take them into account, the court said, there is a good chance they would have voted to spare Rodriguez’s life. Rodriguez will now get a new sentencing hearing, and another chance to prove that he is legally ineligible for the death penalty.
Rodriguez grew up in severe poverty in El Salvador during a bloody civil war. As a young child he endured gun fights and bomb blasts and saw dead bodies on his way to school. He was frequently hungry, had little or no medical care, and was exposed to pesticides and contaminated water. When he was 16 years old, his brother was killed by guerrillas after joining the army and Rodriguez had to retrieve his brother’s body and bring it home. He scored just 61 on an IQ test, placing him in the lowest 2 percent of the population. Experts say he suffers from lifelong disabilities, made worse by the trauma he endured as a child.
Rodriguez was convicted of killing his estranged wife, Maria Rodriguez, in 2010. She had recently left him after enduring years of abuse. The crime, which left their three children without parents, certainly warrants punishment — but the death penalty was not appropriate in this case.
The death penalty is given to just a tiny fraction of people who commit murder and is intended only for the most culpable defendants. Yet, the system continues to prove itself incapable of correctly deciding which defendants should live and which should die.
At least nine of the men sentenced to death in North Carolina have been innocent. Many more — like Rodriguez — are people with disabilities, mental illness, and horribly traumatic childhoods that make them not the worst of the worst, but the most vulnerable among us.