NC should end push to revive the death penalty

December 20, 2013 

In the contest to win the title of “Most Out-of-Step State,” Republicans running North Carolina’s legislature have striven to take the lead. They managed to push through a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage just before the U.S. Supreme Court said such unions were legal. And this year, the GOP made North Carolina the only state in the nation to reject an extension of federal unemployment benefits.

Now lawmakers are again at the head of the pack going the wrong way. Republican leaders are pushing to revive the state’s dormant death penalty at a time when its use is rapidly ending across the nation. Step one was repealing the Racial Justice Act as an obstacle to executions. The RJA allowed death row inmates to have their sentences changed to life without parole if a judge found evidence of racial bias in their death sentences.

State Senate leader Phil Berger, an Eden Republican who pushed for the repeal, said of the law’s end, “For nearly a decade, liberal death penalty opponents have orchestrated legal challenges to impede the law in North Carolina. Justice delayed is justice denied.”

With that, North Carolina joined Florida as the only states this year that moved to speed the schedule for executions. Most others are turning away from the ineffective, inconsistent and immoral process of having the state put people to death. Maryland repealed its death penalty this year, the sixth state in the last six years to do so.

Executions decline

As 2013 draws to an end, the Death Penalty Information Center reports that there were 39 executions this year, a 10 percent decline over 2012. The report said it was only the second year since 1994 with fewer than 40 executions in the United States. Executions were carried out in just nine states, with Texas and Florida accounting for nearly 60 percent of them.

In our state, the N.C. Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty said this year “was North Carolina’s seventh year without an execution, and juries sent only a single person to death row, the first death sentence imposed since 2011. In 2012, for the first time in the modern era of the death penalty, no one was sentenced to death in North Carolina.”

Gretchen M. Engel, executive director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, said: “When death sentences become as rare as they are now, it’s a clear sign that the people of our state have lost faith in the death penalty.”

Support fades

A majority of Americans and North Carolinians still support the death penalty, but that support is falling. Indeed, a February poll of North Carolina voters found that 68 percent would support replacing the death penalty with life without parole if the money saved was spent solving crimes and aiding crime victims. And, aside from drum beating from some members of the legislature, there has been virtually no public demand to revive the death penalty here since legal objections have created a de facto moratorium. North Carolina has not carried out an execution since 2006.

One reason the public and jurors are cooling on capital punishment has been the discovery of innocent people on death row, largely because of the emergence of DNA evidence. Seven North Carolina death row inmates have been exonerated – five of them since 1999.

Some lawmakers may still want to portray the sporadic and uneven vengeance of the death penalty as justice, but North Carolina juries don’t agree. Lawmakers ought to abide by the jurors’ judgment rather than insist on reviving the ultimate – and irreversible – penalty.

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