After hate-filled murders in N.C., choosing a legacy of love and light over the darkness of the death penalty

April 12, 2019

Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha
Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Those words were first spoken by Martin Luther King Jr., and many have repeated them. But it takes integrity to live by them, especially when hate has touched you in the most profound way.

Yet, that’s exactly what the families of Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha have done again and again since February 2015, when these three promising Muslim students were senselessly murdered by an angry white neighbor. The crime not only ripped a hole in their families and deprived the world of three wonderful people, it terrorized the entire Muslim community. To make it worse, since the murders, their loved ones have been targeted with hateful slurs.

Their response has been to ensure that the legacy of their beautiful children will be one of love, not hate. They opened a community center for young Muslim people in a house that Barakat once owned. They started an annual interfaith food drive in the victims’ honor. Just this week, they traveled to Washington D.C. to share their story at a Congressional hearing on hate crimes.

And then Thursday, when the Durham district attorney announced that she would not seek the death penalty against their killer, the victims’ brother, Farris Barakat, stood before a crowd of reporters and expressed the family’s support for the decision. He cited those words from Dr. King and acknowledged that nothing that happens in a courtroom can ever bring true “closure” for their loss.

The myth of the death penalty is that it has a magical power to bring closure to grieving families. But the truth is that it only stokes more hate and anger. It only creates more grieving families. It only brings more darkness into our world.

D.A. Satana Deberry explained that removing the death penalty from the picture would allow the trial – already overdue – to proceed without delay. Deberry made the right decision in this difficult case, one that should be an example for other prosecutors dealing with painful crimes. The death penalty delays and extends trials and appeals, making them more painful for all involved. And, for all that, only a tiny fraction of cases ever result in execution.

Deberry also said that bringing the case to trial quickly will allow the family to begin to heal. It’s clear they’ve already begun that difficult work. Their actions this week were yet another step toward ensuring that the memories of their loved ones will be beacons of love and hope, rather than catalysts for hatred and death.

In California, the moral case for ending the death penalty

March 14, 2019

In today’s world, it’s easy to think politicians on both sides of the aisle care only about their own power and reelection chances. But every once in a while, we see an act of moral leadership that renews our faith in government. This week, it happened in California.

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that he would dismantle the death chamber and grant the state’s nearly 750 death row inmates a reprieve. They will remain incarcerated but will no longer live under the threat of execution. It was a stunning move in a state with the nation’s largest death row.

Newsom ends California death penalty

What’s more, Newsom didn’t just couch his decision in the safe terms of how much money it would save the state —billions — or how hopelessly backlogged the state’s death penalty machine was. Since 1976, California has sentenced hundreds of people to death yet carried out 13 executions. He also made a strong moral argument against the death penalty.

Newsom noted proven racial disparities in the criminal justice system, the way the death penalty preys on poor people, and the national epidemic of wrongful convictions. And then he described a conversation with Bryan Stevenson. “He said it’s not a question, the death penalty, of whether people deserve to die for their heinous acts. The question really is, do we have the right to kill? That’s a deep and existential question. I know people think it’s an eye for an eye, but if you rape, we don’t rape. And I think, if someone kills, we don’t kill. We’re better than that.”

Newsom also laid out the unthinkable scenario that might have ensued without his action. “What we’re being asked to do in California is to consider executing more people than any state in modern American history,” he said. “To line people up to be executed — premeditated, state sponsored executions — one a week for over 14 years. That’s a choice we can make, or we can make, I think, a more enlightened choice, to advance justice in a different way.”

Watch Newsom’s full speech here.

North Carolina faces a very similar situation. Like California, we have not executed anyone since 2006. We have one of the country’s largest death rows, made up mostly of people tried decades ago. Nine innocent people have been exonerated after being sentenced to die, and more claims of innocence are under investigation.

Our state has spent millions on the death penalty and executed just a few dozen people, offering the ultimate punishment to only a tiny handful of victims’ families. And if North Carolina were to resume executions, at the rate of one a week, it would take us nearly three years to kill all the people on death row — a macabre spectacle.

North Carolina, too, should make the enlightened choice to put an official end to the death penalty. There are better ways to do justice and bring comfort to the families of victims. And there are better ways to show that killing is wrong.

NC, let’s take a hint from Washington: It’s time to end the racist death penalty

October 16, 2018

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.

How much more proof can you ask for that the death penalty is racist and arbitrary in our state?

More than 63 percent of North Carolina’s death 141 row prisoners are people of color, even though they make up less than 30 percent of the state population. More than two dozen of the people on death row were sentenced to die by all-white juries.

A comprehensive statistical study found that defendants who kill white victims are more likely to get the death penalty, and that across the state, African American citizens are systematically, and illegally, excluded from capital juries.

If that’s not enough, let’s talk about arbitrariness.

A new report from the Center for Death Penalty Litigation shows that most of the people on N.C. death row are only there because they had the bad luck to be tried under outdated laws, before there were basic legal protections to ensure fairness at their trials. Had they been tried under modern laws, most wouldn’t be on death row today.

Watch the story of Nathan Bowie, who because there was no indigent defense agency at the time of his trial, ended up with an alcoholic lawyer who came to court drunk.

Today, after the enactment of many reforms, only a handful of people each year face capital trials. Yet, the selection of that handful remains arbitrary. It has more to do with the practices of the local DA, the county where the crime occurred, and the defendant’s willingness to accept a plea bargain than it does with the severity of the crime.

Across the country, people have become unwilling to ignore the obviousness unfairness that infects the death penalty. Last week, Washington admitted the truth about its death penalty. It’s time for North Carolina to do the same.

Time to move on: Calls for death penalty fall flat in N.C.

December 17, 2017

Maybe you heard that N.C. legislative leaders called last week for executions to return to North Carolina. It’s one of the oldest political tricks in the book, whipping up fervor for the death penalty to score points with conservative voters.

But in 2017, more than 11 years after North Carolina’s last execution, it’s starting to feel a bit retro.

Let’s take a look back at this year:

There were just four capital trials in North Carolina and juries rejected the death penalty at every one of them. This means N.C. juries have sent just one person to death row in the past three and a half years.

Most N.C. district attorneys didn’t seek the death penalty at all, and some said they see no point in continuing to pursue death sentences. Life without parole is a harsh punishment suitable for the worst crimes.

Four more U.S. death row inmates were exonerated, and a Gallup poll found death penalty support was at its lowest point in 45 years.

A N.C. death row inmate won a new trial after the vast majority of the evidence against him was discredited. Michael Patrick Ryan, who has always claimed his innocence, is awaiting his new day in court to prove he was wrongly convicted in 2010.

Other states that tried to carry out executions continued to botch them terribly and scramble for lethal drugs.

[Read the Center for Death Penalty Litigation’s year-end report on the state of the N.C. death penalty.]

In light of those facts, North Carolina looks pretty smart to have stayed out of the execution business for another year.

The truth is, resuming executions would do nothing to solve today’s problems. Instead, we would be executing people who were tried 15, 20, or even 30 years ago — before a slew of reforms intended to protect innocent people and ensure fair trials. More than three-quarters of North Carolina’s 143 death row inmates were tried at least 15 years ago.

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.

Gallup Poll: The death penalty question they never ask

Last week’s Gallup poll showed us that Americans’ support for the death penalty continues to erode. Fifty-five percent said they are in favor of executing people, the lowest number in 45 years. That’s down from a high of 80 percent in the mid-1990s.

But a more accurate picture would have emerged if the poll had asked the question that truly gauges people’s views on the death penalty: Would you support replacing the death penalty with life in prison, if you were assured that those convicted would never be released? When that question is asked, a clear majority of Americans, in poll after poll, say they are ready to give up the execution chamber.

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.

The death penalty costs far more than life without parole, takes decades to carry out, and carries with it the risk of executing an innocent person. And it does nothing more to protect us from crime than the harsh and irrevocable sentence of life in prison with no possibility of parole.

Recently, police chiefs and prison officials, even some N.C. prosecutors have acknowledged the waste and futility of continuing to pursue the death penalty. For more than a decade, North Carolina has remained among the vast majority of states who no longer execute people. Meanwhile, our state’s murder rate has gone down.

It’s time to stop clinging to a waning and outdated punishment.

Why North Carolina’s death penalty is not for the “worst of the worst”

By Gretchen M. Engel
Reposted from the blog of N.C. Policy Watch

Henry McCollum innocent man on death row
The justice system said Henry McCollum was the “worst of the worst.” He turned out to be innocent.

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.

Gretchen Engel is the Executive Director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation.