Why we’re winning the fight against the death penalty in North Carolina

NC Supreme Court Building with American and State Flag, seen through the trees
North Carolina Supreme Court


December 17, 2018 

Sometimes, the fight to end the death penalty can feel like a long, slow slog. But we’ve got good news. We are winning!

In 2018, for the second year in a row, juries didn’t hand down any new death sentences. Two years in a row of no new death sentences? That’s never happened before. We shouldn’t underestimate how significant that is in a state that, in the 1990s, sent dozens of people to death row every year.

For the twelfth year in a row, no executions were carried out in 2018.

Even our state’s district attorneys have begun to flag in their enthusiasm for death sentences. Only three counties (out of 100!) held death penalty trials this year. In Buncombe County, District Attorney Todd Williams is going a step further. He has begun reevaluating decades-old death sentences — and when he finds that the defendant got an unfair trial, he agrees to stop seeking execution and allow the person to serve life without parole instead.

In 2019, we have more reform-minded DAs who will take office in Durham and Charlotte. We’re hoping they will be part of a national trend away from the death penalty, mass incarceration, and racially-disparate punishments. [America’s Leading Reform-Minded District Attorney Has Taken His Most Radical Step Yet]

As this year comes to a close, 140 people remain on death row in North Carolina. Their lives depend on us continuing to fight — and continuing to win.

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.

In the fight on crime, death is far more costly than life

Almost every time people discuss the death penalty on social media, at least one person chimes in with this opinion: We should execute people because it’s too expensive to keep them in prison for life.

But the truth is, the death penalty costs far more than life without parole.

The extra costs begin adding up the moment a suspect is arrested and charged capitally. They continue for all the years he sits on death row, until his execution is complete. When it’s all over, it would have been far cheaper if the person had spent his life in prison, awaiting a natural death.

A  2009 study on the costs of the N.C. death penalty found that keeping capital punishment on the books costs our state at least $11 million a year, even while executions are on hold. And that is just in extra defense costs, not taking into account prosecution and court expenses.

On average, defending a capital case costs four times as much as a first-degree murder trial in which the defendant faces a maximum of life without parole, according to the N.C. Office of Indigent Defense Services, which provides defense attorneys for most criminal defendants in North Carolina.

Studies in other states have all shown the same thing: The death penalty is a net loss for taxpayers.

Here are some of the ways the North Carolina death penalty costs more than life imprisonment:

  • A suspect who is charged capitally has the right to two specially trained attorneys, plus funds for experts and mitigation investigators who compile extensive reports to help jurors understand the defendant’s circumstances when they are deciding between life and death.
  • At trial, selecting a “death-qualified” jury of only people who are willing to impose a death sentence often takes weeks or months, while selecting a non-capital jury is typically completed in a few days.
  • Unlike non-capital trials, death penalty trials have a separate penalty phase, complete with witness and expert testimony.
  • These longer, more complex trials add up to thousands of additional hours for defense attorneys, prosecutors, law enforcement, and court officials.
  • Once they are sentenced to death, defendants are automatically entitled to many levels of appeals, which typically go on for at least a decade.
  • While in prison, they are housed on death row — a special, segregated unit with extra security — and they are not allowed to work as other prisoners do.
  • As long as executions are possible, the prison must maintain a death chamber and a team of staff who are trained to carry out lethal injections. They also must procure increasingly scarce execution drugs, which some states are being forced to import or have specially made in compounding pharmacies. (That’s not to mention the cost of continuing litigation in North Carolina over the state’s lethal injection protocols.)

A 1993 study found that, all told, it costs the state $2.16 million more per case to prosecute a homicide capitally and see it through to execution. We can only imagine what the cost would be today.

So, the next time you find yourself in a conversation with someone spouting the old “kill ‘em to save money” line, we hope you’ll give them an education on the true costs of the death penalty.