In 2018, for the second year in a row, juries didn’t hand down any new death sentences. We shouldn’t underestimate how significant that is in a state that, in the 1990s, sent dozens of people to death row every year. Executions remained on hold for a twelfth year. And even our state’s district attorneys have begun to flag in their enthusiasm for death sentences.
Legally, there was a strong argument that even though Jimmy was guilty, he should never have been sentenced to death. The jury that sentenced him didn’t know that this impulsive crime was in part the product of several traumatic brain injuries, which began in childhood. If Jimmy were retried now, he would never receive a death sentence. No Buncombe jury has sentenced anyone to death since 2000.
Last week, Washington became the 20th state to end the death penalty after its Supreme Court ruled that capital punishment is arbitrary and racially biased. If those are reasons to outlaw the death penalty, then it is surely time for the North Carolina death penalty to go. If anything, the death penalty in NC is more racist, more arbitrary, and threatens the lives of far more people.
After 12 years without an execution, many people believe the North Carolina death penalty is dead. That might be true — if it weren’t for the more than 140 people still on death row. A new report shows that, by today’s standards, most of them shouldn’t be there.
It’s hard to describe what it feels like to be a capital defense attorney. To be responsible for saving the lives of people who’ve committed terrible crimes, and sometimes, to be forced to watch them die. In this video, Elizabeth Hambourger, a staff attorney at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, explains in moving and personal terms what it’s like to do this most difficult of jobs.
One elderly woman sat with us in her living room, wearing a pink nightgown. “I should have followed my conscience,” she said, her hands shaking. “I hope he can forgive me.” It’s unclear if she’s seeking forgiveness from the innocent man she sent to death row, or God himself. Four years after Henry McCollum’s exoneration, jurors are still wrestling with their role.
On that terrible day, the worst moment was telling Quentin’s family that the governor had denied clemency, and that he would be killed in 90 minutes. His younger sister let out a howl that I can still hear now. She sounded like an animal dying in a trap. A social worker and I then went to give Quentin the news. When we told him, and started sobbing, he gathered us into his arms and comforted us. Quentin was so much more than the worst thing he’d done.
Even with the number of death sentences slowed to a trickle, our state still can’t get it right in death penalty cases. The N.C. Supreme Court has just overturned the sentence of of a death row prisoner from Forsyth County, saying there was ample evidence that he had intellectual disabilities and mental illness that should have moved the jury to spare him from execution.
It’s starting to feel like Groundhog Day in Wake County. Every year begins with a capital trial, and every year, the jury chooses life. Wake is the only county in the state where a defendant has been tried capitally every year for the past three years. We’re hoping that, next year, we can skip this annual ritual.
In 2017, N.C. juries rejected the death penalty, more innocent people were released from death row, and public support for executions fell to a 45-year low. As we look to 2018, let’s skip the outdated death penalty rhetoric and start looking for solutions that actually make people safer — like properly staffing prisons and supplying guards with working radios.