Most of the people on North Carolina’s death row were sentenced in the 1990s. By today’s laws and attitudes, almost none of them would have been sentenced to death.
More than 130 people sit on North Carolina’s death row, but most of their sentences are antiquated. About three-quarters of them were tried more than 20 years ago, during a very different era.
In the 1990s, public support for the death penalty was overwhelming and North Carolina juries handed down dozens of death sentences each year, more than Texas. But beginning in 2001, after several high-profile exonerations of innocent people on death row, juries became much more reluctant to impose death. And a wave of legal reforms transformed capital trials. New laws guaranteed capital defendants such basic rights as trained defense attorneys and mitigation investigators, and the right to see all the evidence in their case files. A court mandate requiring prosecutors to seek death for virtually every first-degree murder — the only such requirement in the nation — was ended.
Today, the death penalty is seen as a tool to be used sparingly, instead of a bludgeon to be wielded in virtually every first-degree murder case. Yet, new laws and shifting public opinion have had little impact on prisoners sentenced decades ago, who remain on death row year after year.
We must not carry out antiquated death sentences.
Read CDPL’s report, Unequal Justice: How Obsolete Laws and Unfair Trials Created NC’s Outsized Death Row.
Right now in North Carolina:
People tried before 2001, when North Carolina’s death penalty reforms began to take effect, had:
- No indigent defense agency to ensure them a trained capital attorney.
- No right to see all the evidence in the prosecutor’s case file.
- No laws requiring police to record confessions or conduct lineups according to best practices intended to prevent mistaken identifications.
- No evidence presented to the jury about their backgrounds and family histories — information that often leads juries to spare people’s lives today.
Watch the story of Nathan Bowie, who has spent more than 25 years on death row for a crime committed as a teenager: