Why most of N.C.’s death row inmates never should have gotten the death penalty

October 9, 2018

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.

Our state continues to spend millions every year fighting to execute those men and women, even though the vast majority of them were sentenced decades ago under outdated laws and standards of justice. If they had been tried in modern times, most would never have received the death penalty.

Watch the story of one of N.C.’s longest serving death row inmates:

This week, a new report from the Center for Death Penalty Litigation exposes just how unfair many of those sentences are by today’s standards. About three-quarters of N.C.’s death row inmates were tried in the 1990s, before a slate of reforms were enacted to protect defendants’ basic rights and prevent wrongful convictions.

CDPL’s report, Unequal Justice: How Obsolete Laws and Unfair Trials Created North Carolina’s Outsized Death Row, finds that out of 142 death row prisoners in North Carolina:

92% (131) were tried before a 2008 package of reforms intended to prevent false confessions and mistaken eyewitness identifications, which have been leading causes of wrongful convictions across the country. The new laws require interrogations and confessions to be recorded in homicide cases and set strict guidelines for eyewitness line-up procedures.

84% (119) were tried before a law granting defendants the right to see all the evidence in the prosecutor’s file — including information that might help reduce their sentence or prove their innocence.

73% (104) were sentenced before laws barring the execution of people with intellectual disabilities. Despite a promise of relief for these less culpable defendants, disabled prisoners remain on death row.

 73% (103) were sentenced before the creation of a statewide indigent defense agency that drastically improved the quality of representation for poor people facing the death penalty, and a law ending an unprecedented requirement that prosecutors pursue the death penalty in every aggravated first-degree murder. Before these changes, prosecutors did not have the ability to seek life sentences in these cases and poor people often received a sub-standard defense.

CDPL’s engaging and easy-to-read report is full of facts and true stories from death row that will change how you think about the death penalty. Read it here.

A juror’s dilemma: The wrenching job of deciding another person’s right to live

November 9, 2017

In a federal courtroom in Greensboro last week, attorneys were parsing a single conversation between a juror and a religious adviser, which took place during a capital trial more than 20 years earlier. It wasn’t the stuff of juicy news headlines. But it did serve to remind us of a little-known aspect of the death penalty: Its impact on jurors who must make life-and-death decisions.

The court was weighing whether a N.C. death row inmate, Russell Tucker, should get a new sentencing hearing because, during his 1996 trial, a juror asked a trusted person what the Bible says about the death penalty and sitting in judgment of others. The juror received an answer that he says allowed him to vote for the death penalty.

Conducting research and seeking advice seems like a logical thing to do when you are given a task as momentous as deciding whether a human being should live or die. Yet, capital jurors are not allowed to do it. They are not even allowed to talk the case through with a spouse or close friend. If they break the rules, they risk being charged with a crime.

There are good reasons for the law. Decisions in criminal cases must be based only on the evidence presented in the courtroom and the law as explained by the judge, not on a confusing array of private investigations and outside advice. Jurors have a solemn duty to decide without inappropriate influence or pressure, and it is critical that they not be swayed by someone else’s feelings or beliefs about the case.

But this necessity puts capital jurors in the uncomfortable position of having to make a life-changing decision without any of their usual support networks.

The Tucker case was actually the third N.C. death row case in the past two years to go to federal court because a juror sought outside spiritual advice. In all three cases, we are awaiting the court’s ruling on whether the defendants will get new sentences.

In William Barnes’ case, a juror asked her pastor which side was correct after the prosecutor and defense attorney offered opposing biblical perspectives on the death penalty in their closing arguments.

And in Jason Hurst’s case, a juror asked her father for advice about which sentence to choose. He directed her to a Bible passage about “eye for an eye.” The next day, she voted for the death penalty.

As long as we ask jurors to make profound and extraordinary moral decisions, we will continue to see well-meaning citizens end up on the hot seat. The fact is, we should never have put them in the wrenching position of deciding another person’s right to live.