The death penalty fades away

CorrespondentSeptember 21, 2011 

The death penalty might as well be dead in North Carolina.

Take Robert Stewart. He admits to gunning down eight people in cold blood, many of them elderly and bedridden, at a Carthage nursing home. Because he says he was under the influence of alcohol and prescription drugs, he's convicted of second-degree murder. Stewart, 47, is sentenced to 16 to 18 years per murder victim, which essentially pencils out to a life term.

Then there's Joshua Stepp. A Wake County jury couldn't bring itself to hand down the death penalty after convicting the Iraqi war vet of sexually assaulting and murdering his 10-month-old stepdaughter. After the jury hit an impasse on a sentence recommendation, Judge Osmond Smith sentenced Stepp to life in prison without possibility of parole.

Who can forget DeMario Atwater? In 2008, he and 17-year-old murder suspect Laurence Lovette (who also awaits trial in the slaying of Duke graduate student Abhijit Mahato) allegedly kidnapped Morehead Scholar and UNC-Chapel Hill student body president Eve Carson. They forced her to withdraw $1,400 from an ATM and then shot her with a .25-caliber handgun and finished her off with a blast to the head from a sawed-off shotgun. Atwater was allowed to plead guilty to numerous federal and state capital charges in exchange for a life sentence in federal prison.

If these men and their horrific acts can't draw the death penalty, who and what can?

Tony S. Summers can. Earlier this year he was sentenced to death after a Guilford County jury convicted him of repeatedly raping Lavell N. Williams in front of her two daughters before stabbing her to death and wounding the children. I won't second-guess the jury's judgment. But was his crime more heinous than those committed by Stewart, Stepp and Atwater? Summers' death sentence appears based more on geography than depravity.

Given the legal morass due to challenges by the North Carolina Medical Society and inmates who dispute the humaneness and protocol of lethal injection, Summers may die of old age before he faces the needle. But the cloud surrounding the state's death penalty appears to have dampened the public appetite for eye-for-an-eye justice. That reluctance also seems to have drastically reduced the desire of district attorneys to call for execution.

Thus far, only nine capital cases have been heard this year in North Carolina. Summers received the sole death sentence. Last year, 13 capital cases went to trial, with four executions ordered. And in 2009, nine capital trials were conducted, resulting in two death sentences.

Compare those numbers to those of a decade earlier when 64, 57 and 51 capital cases went to trial in 1999, 2000 and 2001 respectively, resulting in 56 death sentences.

The withering of capital cases and de facto moratorium on executions (the last here occurred in August 2006) suggests that any serious effort to officially end capital punishment isn't worth the effort.

I say it is, even if the interest is solely economic.

Philip J. Cook, ITT/Sanford professor of public policy and professor of economics and sociology at Duke University, calculated that the 25 capital cases heard in 2007 and 2008 (which resulted in only four death sentences) cost the state $22 million more than if these cases were adjudicated as non-capital cases. In his study, published in the American Law and Economics Review, Cook argues the money would have been better spent in other areas of the criminal justice system, including allowing district attorneys the resources to prosecute non-capital cases more fully.

No doubt, any serious campaign to overturn the death penalty in North Carolina will unleash a barrage of rallies, vigils, rhetoric and competing academic studies. But the evidence is clear that once North Carolinians are seated in a jury box, they seem willing to accept just about any legal argument to avoid imposing the ultimate punishment.

The message jurors are increasingly sending lawmakers is clear. It's time to put the final nail in the death penalty's coffin.

Contributing columnist Rick Martinez ( is news director at WPTF, NC News Network and

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