The death penalty is all but extinct in North Carolina. Juries have recommended two new death sentences since 2014. The state hasn’t carried out an execution since 2006. Yet, as of March of 2019, North Carolina has the fifth largest death row in the nation, with 141 men and women. It is a relic of another era.
More than 100 of N.C.’s death row prisoners — about three-quarters — were sentenced in the 1990s, under wildly different laws. During those years, North Carolina juries sent dozens of people a year to death row, more than Texas. The state’s courtrooms were dominated by prosecutors like Ken Honeycutt in Stanly County, who celebrated new death sentences by handing out noose lapel pins to his assistant prosecutors.
Beginning in 2001, after investigations and DNA testing began to reveal innocent people on death row, a wave of reforms transformed the landscape. New laws guaranteed capital defendants such basic rights as trained defense attorneys and the right to see all the evidence in their cases. 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 in another era. The bulk of North Carolina’s death row is now made up of people who were tried 15, 20, even 25 years ago. They are prisoners of a state that has moved on, but has refused to reckon with its past.
Watch the video to hear Nathan Bowie’s story:
Read the Center for Death Penalty Litigation’s 2018 report, Unequal Justice: How Obsolete Laws and Unfair Trials Created North Carolina’s Outsized Death Row:
For more on the report, read the Intercept’s “Relic of Another Era”: Most People on North Carolina’s Death Row Would Not Be Sentenced to Die Today:
Parker, the former prosecutor, did not attend the execution of Ronald Frye in 2001. “I gave my ticket to the arresting officer,” he said. Parker said he had developed a certain level of affection for Frye by then. “I thought he has what’s coming to him, but I wasn’t gonna go watch him die.”
I asked Parker if he would feel satisfied if Nathan Bowie were to be executed today, 25 years after he was convicted. Would he consider it justice? Parker paused. “I really haven’t given it much thought,” he said, adding, “I did my job.” He doesn’t miss it. He’s happily retired, playing golf a few times a week, he told me. “I don’t think about it much anymore. I leave it alone.”