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.
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.
Prosecutors might tell you they need the death penalty to punish the “worst of the worst.” But in practice, that’s not how the death penalty is used in North Carolina. Our state spends millions each year to pursue death sentences that are arbitrary and unnecessary, and uses the threat of death as a negotiation tactic to pressure defendants to accept plea bargains — sometimes putting innocent lives on the line.
Today is a somber anniversary in North Carolina. The last execution carried out in our state was on this day 10 years ago. We didn’t know it then, but that day marked a dividing line in North Carolina’s history. Before, North Carolina had one of the most active death chambers in the nation. After, we became the only state in the South to put executions on hold.
Howard Dudley got a life sentence based on the outlandish story of a troubled 9-year-old. People in North Carolina are frequently prosecuted for the death penalty based on evidence just as flimsy.
The N.C. Commission on Actual Innocence is reexamining all convictions that relied on microscopic hair analysis. This type of evidence, once widely used in death penalty prosecutions, is now recognized to be based on junk science. Yet, many people convicted with it still sit in prison.
Henry McCollum’s attorney writes about defending an innocent man for 20 years. “I am angry that we live in a world where two disabled boys can have their lives stolen from them, where cops can lie and intimidate with impunity, where innocent people can be condemned to die and where injustice is so difficult to bring to light.”
30 years, 11 months, 5 days. That’s how long it took for Henry McCollum and Leon Brown to finally prove their innocence in a rape and murder for which they were sentenced to death. A judge declared both men innocent Tuesday and ordered their release.
We like to think that a capital appeals process that lasts years weeds out all the wrongly-convicted inmates. Sadly, that’s just not true. No jury has ever heard the evidence that could prove Johnny Burr innocent.
Prosecutors used evidence of “blood all over the room” to persuade a jury to sentence Patricia Jennings to death. What state experts didn’t tell the jury: Those “blood” spots had actually tested negative for the presence of blood.