As North Carolina politicians engaged in rigorous debate this year about whether capital punishment should exist, the juries that actually decide death-penalty cases made a statement of their own.
No jury in North Carolina has come back with a death sentence this year, and there are no more capital cases on the 2012 docket.
That’s the first time since 1977, when the death penalty was reinstated in this state, that a jury has not sentenced at least one person to execution.
“The idea that we’ve come this far in 35 years is a powerful statement of where the public is at in North Carolina,” said Ken Rose, an attorney at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation and a death penalty critic. “It’s a verdict on the death penalty.”
The last capital case on the 2012 court calendar was decided earlier this month, when a Johnston County jury convicted Matthew Hagert Salentine of first-degree murder in the June 2010 beating death of Patricia Warren Stevens. The jury had an option of sentencing Salentine, 37, to death for killing his 74-year-old neighbor as she tried to stop him from robbing her of jewelry, money and checks. But after a hearing that included testimony from the families of both the victim and convicted killer, the jury came back Nov. 2 with a sentence of life in prison without parole.
That trial came on the heels of three other capital cases this year.
Wake County had one of those cases, the trial of Jason Williford, the 32-year-old man convicted of murdering and sexually assaulting Kathy Taft, a state school board member slain in 2010. The jury that found him guilty in early June spared him a death sentence, sending him instead to a life in prison without possibility for parole.
In May, a Guilford County jury sentenced Isaam Mattaay Chaplin, 30, to life in prison without possibility for parole after finding him guilty of first-degree murder and armed robbery in the death of Juan Salado, a young father working two jobs to raise a son. Chaplin, a former N.C. A&T criminal justice major who once worked at the Old Navy Store where the crime occurred, is accused of dressing in women’s clothing and a wig and ambushing Salado as he carried bags of money from the Greensboro store on Dec. 15, 2008.
The other death-penalty case this year was in June in Robeson County, where John Darren Bullard was tried for first-degree murder in the 2006 shooting death of Crystal Locklear. A jury in that case found Bullard guilty of second-degree murder, and the death penalty was not an option for that verdict.
Issue in other states
The record-low of four capital trials in North Carolina comes at a time when many states are wrestling with proposals to abolish capital punishment.
In 2004, the courts declared the death penalty to be unconstitutional in New York. In 2007, New Jersey repealed its death penalty law, with New Mexico following suit in 2009 and Illinois in 2011. This year, the Connecticut legislature passed a bill to abandon the death penalty for future convictions, but the 11 men on death row may still be executed.
But in California this week, 53 percent of the voters rejected a ballot initiative to repeal the death penalty and move all death row inmates to life in prison without possibility of parole.
Though North Carolina has not put such questions about the death penalty on the ballot, there has been a de-facto moratorium on executions since 2006, when a series of lawsuits were filed challenging the fairness and humanity of the state-sponsored executions. The state legislature also has adopted and repealed the 2009 Racial Justice Act, which gave all death row inmates and anyone facing a death penalty trial an opportunity to challenge their case on racial biases.
Death-penalty critics and capital defenders are buoyed by the absence of new capital sentences this year.
“In some ways, it’s a milestone,” said Thomas Maher, executive director of the state’s Indigent Defense Services and a former director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation. “In other ways, it’s part of a trend.”
In 2000, there were 57 capital trials and 18 death-penalty verdicts. That number steadily decreased in the ensuing years, with 12 capital trials in 2008 resulting in one death sentence.
In 2009, there were two death sentences from nine capital trials. In 2010, there were 11 capital trials and four death sentences, one more than in 2011, when three death sentences were issued after 12 capital trials.
Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said there are many reasons for the drop in cases and death sentences. Prosecutors consider the “enormous resources it takes” to try a capital case, Willoughby said, and the changing attitudes of jurors toward capital punishment, in addition to recent law changes that make a sentence of life without possibility of parole mean just that – a life behind prison walls.
“You will continue to see select cases tried capitally,” Willoughby said, “because the belief by prosecutors is the facts of some cases are so egregious that a jury should decide whether the death penalty is appropriate.”
The Williford case
Willoughby has said the “egregiousness” of the murder and sexual assault of Taft, the 62-year-old state school board member bludgeoned inside a Raleigh home while she recovered from cosmetic surgery, was what prompted him to pursue the case capitally.
Ernest “Buddy” Conner, a defense attorney for Williford, said he tried to arrange a plea deal with prosecutors in which his client would plead guilty to murder, sexual assault and burglary and spend the rest of his life in prison without any chance for parole. The Wake district attorney rejected that proposal, though, and a trial ensued, resulting in the same sentence that Conner proposed.
Conner, a lawyer in Greenville who has worked on capital cases for 20 years, said juries are never quick to give a death sentence.
But several things have happened to make them even more reluctant.
In recent years, there have been several high-profile cases of wrongful convictions, which resulted in the state investing more money into its indigent defense services.
Now, when a jury gets a capital case, lawyers provide a fuller picture of a defendant from the start, offering up mental health and other factors that might have played a part in their behavior.
“When you show the why of it all,” Conner said, “juries are often very reluctant to give the death sentence. If the defendant is a monster, that monster was made by somebody. If there is serious mental illness, well you don’t kill your mentally ill.”
The absence of death sentences this year, Conner said, does not mean that a death knell has been sounded for capital punishment.
“I think it’s still alive,” Conner said. “I just don’t think it’s very well. This is historic.”