In the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, let’s deem the death penalty nonessential work

NC death row
The execution viewing area at Central Prison in Raleigh, Photo by Scott Langley, deathpenaltyphoto.org

In the midst of a Coronavirus pandemic, society is forced to decide which work is essential. Across the United States, that question is now being applied to countless enterprises — including the death penalty. Is it essential for states to kill people?

Eighteen executions are scheduled between now and the end of the year in Texas, Missouri, Ohio and Tennessee. Countless death penalty trials are also planned across the country, including in North Carolina.

The courts are likely to call most or all of them off because, right now, if our society wants to kill, we must risk harming innocent people too. That has always been true, but the Coronavirus allows us to see and feel that risk more concretely.

Texas has already called off two executions. In mid-March, John Hummel and Tracy Beatty had their executions delayed indefinitely. At the time, visitors had already been barred from the state’s prisons and the nation was at the beginning of massive community spread. In those conditions, the idea of bringing together a group of people in a confined space to carry out a lethal injection was rightly deemed absurd 

What’s unbelievable is that, in both cases, prosecutors opposed the delay of the executions. One told the court there was “no evidence” that Coronavirus would affect the state’s ability to carry out an execution, a statement that reveals just how deeply irrational the death penalty is.

Had the executions been carried out, prison staff and witnesses would have been forced to pack themselves together in tiny rooms. The families of the people being executed might have been denied a final visit, or been forced to choose between saying goodbye to their loved ones or possibly contracting a deadly virus. All to kill a person who no longer presents any threat to society. 

In any situation, some people will cling to their old ideas. But in this exceptional time when the death penalty has come to a shuddering halt, it’s possible that many people will gain a new perspective.

Maybe when we emerge from this time in our cocoons, society will be transformed. Maybe we will understand that the law of nature is far more powerful than the law of people, and that the safety the death penalty promises is an illusion. Maybe we will finally see that humans don’t need to do the work of killing. 

— April 1, 2020

Even amid the chaos of coronavirus, states still moving away from the death penalty

As we fight a global pandemic, it feels more absurd than ever before to devote the resources of any state to trying to kill people.

Colorado state capitol

This week, some much-needed good news came out of Colorado. Gov. Jared Polis signed a bill ending the death penalty and commuting the sentences of the state’s three remaining death row prisoners. His signature made Colorado the tenth state since 2007 to decide that the death penalty isn’t necessary to maintain public safety and does more to perpetuate injustice than to ensure justice. 

Right now, with Covid-19 bearing down, most states and local governments are focusing on short-term efforts to cut jail populations and release some of the scores of people who are behind bars only because they can’t afford to pay bail. But Colorado has taken a step at the other end of the spectrum, joining a national movement away from the death penalty.

As public opinion turns against the death penalty, almost of half of U.S. states no longer have the death penalty on the books. It’s past time for North Carolina to join them in abandoning this flawed and ineffective policy. 

In North Carolina, a 2019 poll found that when voters were offered a broad range of alternatives to the death penalty, only about a quarter of them favored the death penalty. And nearly three-quarters said it’s likely an innocent person has been executed in North Carolina. In the past few decades, ten people sentenced to death in North Carolina have been exonerated. Ten innocent people on death row is a good enough reason to end the death penalty on its own.

Like North Carolina, Colorado’s death penalty was racially skewed. In a state where just 4 percent of the population is African American, all three men on its death row were black. In North Carolina, more than 140 people are living under sentences of death. Sixty percent are people of color, compared with only about 30 percent of the North Carolina population.

Also like North Carolina, Colorado had become deeply uneasy about the death penalty and long ago ceased executions. The people on its death row were sitting year after year, decade after decade, waiting for an execution that was unlikely to be carried out.

Yet, even when no one’s being executed and very few people are being sentenced to death, the death penalty has an outsize effect on a state’s criminal punishment system. It adds millions in yearly costs and skews the whole system toward harsher penalties. And it allows the state to threaten vulnerable suspects with death to assure their compliance, a pressure tactic that sometimes persuades even innocent people to confess. 

As we fight a global pandemic, it feels more absurd than ever before to devote the resources of any state to trying to kill people. We sincerely hope that, once this health crisis is over, North Carolina will follow Colorado’s lead and turn to endeavors that support life rather than death.

— March 25, 2020

New day in North Carolina: Poll shows majority of voters no longer support the death penalty

Feb. 11, 2019

For generations, North Carolina politicians of both parties have had one thing in common: Almost all of them staunchly supported the death penalty. That’s largely because they believed their voters supported it.

They’ve continued to operate on that belief, even without much data to back it up. But late last month, Public Policy Polling conducted a statewide poll to answer the question: What do North Carolinians think about the death penalty today?

The results should make state politicians question their death penalty orthodoxy. After more than a decade without executions and a wave of exonerations of innocent people on death row, voters no longer trust the system to decide who should live and die.

Some of the striking results of the survey of 501 voters across the state, 47 percent of whom voted for Trump and 45 percent of whom voted for Clinton:

70 percent say it’s likely that an innocent person has been executed in North Carolina. This belief alone is enough reason to end the death penalty!

57 percent say it’s likely that racial bias influences who is sentenced to death. Pervasive racism is another good reason to end it!

When given a choice between the death penalty and a maximum sentence of life without parole, more than 50 percent of voters favor life without parole, while only 44 percent lean toward keeping the death penalty.

When offered a larger range of alternatives, including requirements that offenders work and pay restitution to victims’ families, only 25 percent favored the death penalty.

58 percent prefer to eliminate the death penalty if the millions of dollars spent on it each year were redirected to investigating and prosecuting unsolved rapes and murders.

A clear majority would support actions by the governor or by their local district attorneys to stop executions and death penalty trials.

No wonder N.C. juries have sentenced only a single person to death since 2014. Our citizens clearly see how unjust and wasteful the death penalty is. It’s time for our leaders to listen to their constituents.

For a more detailed summary of the poll results, go to CDPL’s website

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.

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.