A death penalty as random as a lightning strike

April 8, 2019

It’s been nearly 50 years since the U.S. Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional nationwide, saying there was “no meaningful basis for distinguishing the few cases in which [the death penalty] is imposed from the many cases in which it is not.” States, including North Carolina, have spent the years since writing laws that — theoretically — allow us to cleanly sort those who deserve the death penalty from those who don’t.

All these years later, it’s clear we have failed.

Just look at the two most recent death penalty verdicts in North Carolina, in the cases of Seaga Gillard and James Bradley. Both involve tragic murders that caused unimaginable pain to the families of the victims.

The first was a double homicide by a person who had previously committed kidnappings, rapes, and robberies. The second was a single killing by a person who had committed two previous homicides, one of them a child. Both were black men who had killed white women.

Both were tried in urban centers, Raleigh and Wilmington. The same expert, a former prison warden, testified in both cases that the defendants could be safely housed in prison and would suffer a life of harsh deprivation there.

If you gave a detailed summary of these cases to a random sampling of people and asked which defendant should live and which should die, there would be no rational way to decide between them. Yet, the Raleigh jury sentenced to Gillard to death in March, and the Wilmington jury deadlocked last week, leaving Bradley with a sentence of life without parole.

This disparity isn’t just irrational and indefensible, it’s unconstitutional. The Supreme Court has already established that a death penalty that’s as random as a lightning strike is not justice, it is cruelty.