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.
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.
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.
My client, Terry Ball, slipped away with barely a mention after living on N.C. death row for almost 25 years. I believe his life is worth remembering, and that his story, like all my clients’ stories, hold keys to understanding the origins of crime and our shared humanity with people labeled the worst of the worst.
The question our society should be asking is not: Do you believe that people who commit murders should be punished? The answer to that is obvious. The question that gets to the heart of the matter is: What’s the fairest, most efficient, and most effective way to punish people who commit the worst crimes? When you ask it that way, the death penalty is clearly not the answer.
A jury deliberated only about two hours before rejecting the death penalty and sentencing Eric Campbell to life with no possibility of parole. In the end, adding the threat of execution to the mix only made this tragic case more painful and protracted. Juries across North Carolina have made it clear they no longer want to kill people. When will prosecutors stop asking them to?
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.
The juror who voted to sentence Kenneth Rouse to die believed that African-Americans were naturally more prone to commit crimes because “blacks do not care about living as much as whites do.” By his own admission, “bigotry” was a key factor in his decision on Rouse’s case. This kind of open racism has been allowed in jury rooms for too long. Now the U.S. Supreme Court says states must address it.
Duane Buck was sentenced to death after an expert deemed him inherently dangerous because of his race. The racism in his trial was blatant, yet it still took 20 years for him to win a new sentencing hearing. Just like Texas, North Carolina fights every day to execute people whose trials were stained by racial bias.