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year fighting to execute those men and women, even though the vast majority of them were sentenced decades ago under outdated laws and standards of justice.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.
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.
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.
She believed the Bible’s instruction: “Thou shalt not kill.” Yet, as a juror decades earlier, she voted for a death sentence for Henry McCollum, an intellectually disabled teenager who was accused of raping and murdering an 11-year-old girl in Robeson County.
The juror put the trial out of her mind until, four years ago this week, McCollum was exonerated. New DNA testing proved another man guilty, and McCollum blameless. After 30 years on death row, McCollum was free.
At the time, I was relatively new to my job at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, whose lawyers represented McCollum. His story showed me just how high the stakes are in this world. North Carolina came close to executing an innocent man.
I am still learning from his case. This spring and summer, a co-worker and I criss-crossed Robeson and Cumberland counties, finding jurors who unwittingly sentenced an innocent man to death. The jurors served at McCollum’s original trial in 1983, and his retrial in 1991, held in Fayetteville. Both juries voted unanimously for death.
We hoped they could shed light on how our system got it so terribly wrong. But as I knocked on strangers’ doors, I worried they would be defensive or angry. Instead, they welcomed us into their homes.
Some seemed relieved to finally talk through the trauma of the trial, though none would let us use their names. Many were ashamed of their role, afraid of what their neighbors would think. Some feared God’s wrath, and wondered if they would go to hell for McCollum’s wrongful conviction. Some shed tears at the mention of his name and said the experience was too painful to revisit. They remembered McCollum at the defense table, silent and unresponsive, like a confused and broken child.
All were denied the information they needed to reach a fair verdict. They were shown gruesome crime photos and McCollum’s confession, written by the police. Even McCollum’s defense attorneys admitted his guilt, believing the jury would spare him if he accepted responsibility.
No one told the jury that another, almost identical crime was committed just a month after the girl’s murder — and that the culprit was not McCollum, but a man who lived by the field where her body was found. The jury didn’t know fingerprints were found at the scene, and that none of them were McCollum’s. They didn’t know the case against McCollum started with a rumor from a teenage girl, who later admitted she made it up.
One juror said his biggest regret is that he trusted prosecutors to tell the truth. If McCollum was on trial, he believed, he’d probably done it.
Like everyone we talked to, his most vivid memories were the photos. At the time, he had a daughter the same age as the victim. When the verdict was announced in the courtroom, he looked at her father. The juror had done what the prosecutor said was right, and he hoped it would ease another father’s pain.
“I’ve been trying to figure out, where did we go wrong?” he said. “I feel like we got duped by the system.”
I was in the courtroom for McCollum’s exoneration four years ago. I will never forget the sight of him standing in a cage – the court probably calls it a holding cell – during a break. He stared silently at the floor, powerless against a system that had chained and caged him for his entire adult life.
Now, there is another image that stays with me. A woman sitting in the dim light of her living room, hardly strong enough to rise from her chair, wondering what those 30 years were like for Henry McCollum. Wondering whether God has heard her pleas for forgiveness.
Since Arkansas shocked the world by trying to execute eight people in 10 days just to beat the expiration date on its lethal drugs, there has been more talk about the death penalty in North Carolina.
Most recently, WUNC’s Rusty Jacobs did a piece on where the death penalty stands, almost 11 years after North Carolina’s last execution. It revealed serious concerns about executing innocent people, and explained why it’s far more expensive to execute than to sentence people to life in prison.
However, one concept goes unchallenged in many stories about the death penalty: The naïve idea that the death penalty is used only in those rare, “worst of the worst” cases. Having spent my entire career up-close with North Carolina’s capital punishment system, I can tell you that’s not how it truly works.
First, let’s look at the 147 people on death row in North Carolina. More than three-quarters of them were sentenced more than 15 years ago, during an era in which North Carolina had one of the highest death-sentencing rates in the nation — even higher than Texas and Florida. Far from using the death penalty only in a handful of the most shocking crimes, execution was pursued Wild West-style in nearly every first-degree murder case.
During those years, we had a law unlike any other in the nation, which required prosecutors to seek the death penalty in every first-degree murder case with an aggravating factor. And, of course, the law is written so broadly that an aggravating factor can be found in almost any intentional killing.
Prosecutors were required to push for execution without regard to mitigating factors, or evidence that pointed to possible innocence. Even they thought this was a terrible idea, and they recommended the law be changed.
The General Assembly ended this requirement in 2001, but by then, death row had swollen to more than 200 people, more than 100 of whom remain there today. All of them were tried without the benefit of reforms intended to ensure fairness and prevent the conviction of innocent people.
There was, for example, no requirement that confessions be recorded. In many cases, the state presented unreliable forensic testing and “junk” science, and defendants were sentenced to death by juries selected in a racially-discriminatory fashion. Some of them, like Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, were innocent. Most would never have received death sentences under today’s laws. These are the people who would be first in line if our execution chamber were to crank up.
Next, consider how the death penalty is used today. Do prosecutors use their discretion to carefully cherry-pick death penalty cases? Absolutely not.
In reality, our justice system runs on pleas. Prosecutors use the death penalty as leverage, to persuade reluctant defendants to plead guilty and accept life sentences.
It works like this: The vast majority of murders are initially charged capitally, and pleas are negotiated from there. The theory is that a defendant facing the threat of execution is more likely to accept whatever deal the state offers. Pursuing the death penalty even when the prosecutor thinks the case is not execution-worthy makes a mockery of justice.
Defendants who refuse a deal are often our most vulnerable clients: those who are mentally impaired, those who least trust their lawyers, or those who are innocent and refuse to plead guilty. People who refuse plea deals represent the vast majority of people who are tried capitally in North Carolina today.
This means a defendant’s chance of facing the death penalty depends less on the crime than on a willingness to accept a life sentence without a trial. Often, several defendants are involved in a crime. Some accept a deal and get a life sentence, while another — maybe not even the most culpable — ends up on trial for his life.
Juries can see that the people who go to trial are not the “worst of the worst.” Look at the two capital trials in North Carolina this year. Both defendants were offered pleas but insisted on going to trial.
The first trial, in Wake County, ended with a verdict of life imprisonment. This marked eight times in a row that a Wake jury has chosen life over death. In the second, just this month, a Robeson County jury not only rejected a death sentence but refused even to convict the defendant of first-degree murder. He was found guilty of second-degree murder.
Prosecutors might tell you they need the death penalty to punish the “worst of the worst.” But in practice, our state spends millions to pursue death sentences that are arbitrary and unnecessary, and uses the threat of death as a negotiation tactic — sometimes putting innocent lives on the line.