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shows that most of the people on N.C. death row are only there because they had the bad luck to be tried under outdated laws, before there were basic legal protections to ensure fairness at their trials.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.

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.

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.

After 20 years on death row, a fair ending to a family tragedy

Phillip Davis removed from NC death row
Phillip Davis in his high school yearbook photo

Last week, a man who spent nearly 20 years on death row was re-sentenced to life in prison without parole. This was a sane resolution to a senseless and much-regretted crime committed by a deeply troubled teenager.

Phillip Davis was re-sentenced with the full of support Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams, who acknowledged unfairness in Davis’ case. “Our system has built-in checks on abuses such as discrimination and prosecutorial misconduct. When the system is not allowed to work as it’s naturally intended to, that’s when you have a problem,” Williams told the Asheville Citizen Times.

It’s a prosecutor’s job to seek justice, rather than blindly seeking the harshest possible punishment. That’s why it was so refreshing to see a prosecutor willing to consider all the circumstances and come to a sensible agreement that serves justice and saves taxpayers money.

If only more North Carolina prosecutors would begin reevaluating the cases of the nearly 150 men and women on death row. The majority of them were sentenced to death more than 15 years ago, some as long as 30.

They were sentenced at a time when vastly different laws led to dozens of people being sent to death row each year. Now, with executions on hold for a decade and juries imposing an average of only one death sentence a year, they languish on death row year after year.

Settling these old cases for sentences of life imprisonment with no possibility of parole would end costly appeals and ensure that defendants are never released from prison — while giving a punishment that is far more fitting with North Carolina’s current standards of justice. Once in general population, inmates cost less to house and can get jobs that allow them to contribute to society.

In Davis’ case, he was just four months past the age that would now make him ineligible for the death penalty when, as a high school senior, he killed his cousin, Caroline Miller, and his aunt, Joyce Miller, after an argument. Davis was living with them because his mother — a lifelong drug addict who had subjected him to a traumatic childhood — was in prison.

Davis, whose IQ puts him in the range of borderline intellectual functioning, immediately accepted responsibility for his crimes and expressed deep remorse. He voiced his sorrow and regret for his actions again in court last week, his voice choked with emotion: “To family members and anyone who knew Joyce and Caroline, they were two very special people who were loved by a lot of people including myself. I regret everything that happened and it’s something I’ll regret for the rest of my life.”

The prosecutor who agreed to his new sentence acknowledged that race wrongly played a role in selecting the all-white jury that sentenced Davis to death in 1997. It is illegal to strike jurors based on race, and in 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed that in the strongest terms ever.

The problem was compounded when prosecutors in Davis’ case took the unusual step of shredding many of their notes from jury selection, making it impossible to examine them for evidence of racial bias.

The victims’ family members said they were satisfied with the life sentence. They have worked over many years to rebuild their relationship with Davis, and his new sentence allows the family’s healing to continue.

It’s a resolution that makes sense for all involved.