RALEIGH — As the Republican-led General Assembly adopted new laws this past year with hopes of lifting a de facto moratorium on executions in North Carolina, juries across the state sent only one person to death row.
Mario Andrette McNeill, 33, found guilty this spring of kidnapping, human trafficking and murdering a 5-year-old Cumberland County girl, was the only defendant in North Carolina during 2013 to be sentenced to death.
His trial in Cumberland County was one of five capital cases tried this year in which a death sentence could have been returned.
The single death penalty verdict came amid a broad pattern of decline not only in North Carolina but across the United States.
The Death Penalty Information Center, a private group based in Washington, recently released its annual report that elaborates on the trend.
The death penalty is becoming an increasingly irrelevant component of the U.S. justice system, Richard Dieter, executive director of the center, said in a statement. Yet, taxpayers spend millions every year on a punishment that is used in only a tiny handful of murder cases. The few who are executed are, in most cases, severely mentally ill or people who were sentenced under outdated laws that do not meet modern standards of justice.
Death sentences fewer
There were 79 death sentences across the nation in 2013 in addition to the one in North Carolina three more than in 2012, but a steep drop from the peak of 315 in 1994 and 1996.
Over the past decade, North Carolina has averaged fewer than three death sentences a year, a sharp contrast with the 1990s, when more than two dozen people were often sent to death row in a single year.
Thirty-nine executions took place across the country in 2013, compared with 98 in 1999. Though the capital punishment took place in nine states, largely throughout the South, North Carolina was not among them.
There has been a de-facto moratorium on executions in this state since 2006, when a series of lawsuits were filed challenging the fairness and humanity of the state-sponsored executions.
This year, the Republican-led General Assembly repealed legislation and supported new policies that death-penalty critics contend are designed to get executions started again.
Cases being appealed
The state has 155 inmates on death row, but most have legal challenges pending in state court that were filed before the repeal of the Racial Justice Act.
The 2009 law, overturned this year, gave all death row inmates and anyone facing a death penalty trial an opportunity to file a racial bias challenge using statistics.
Attorneys representing the death row inmates plan to push forward with the cases already in the system, despite the legislative action this summer. They also have acknowledged plans to challenge any attempts to block those suits.
When death sentences become as rare as they are now, its a clear sign that the people of our state have lost faith in it, Gretchen M. Engel, executive director of the Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation, said.
Engel said several things have happened to make juries more reluctant to impose a death sentence and prosecutors less likely to ask for capital trials.
In recent years, there have been several high-profile cases of wrongful convictions, which resulted in the state investing more money in 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 the defendants behavior.
Is support eroding?
Death penalty critics contend there has been a societal shift that shows eroding support for the death penalty and a growing preference for sentences of life without possibility for parole. They cite a national Gallup poll released in November showing that public support for the death penalty has reached a 40-year low.
A February survey by Public Policy Polling, a left-leaning Raleigh-based organization, found that nearly 70 percent of North Carolina residents support ending the death penalty if offenders are required to remain in prison for life, work and pay restitution to victims families.
This year, several states considered repealing the death penalty, and Maryland joined the list of 18 that have done away with capital punishment.
State Rep. Paul Stam, a Republican from Apex who pushed for the legislation to start executions again, disagreed that there is waning support for the death penalty in North Carolina. He cited polls done by Civitas Institute, a conservative-leaning Raleigh-based organization. Though total support has declined over the past three years, according to Civitas data, the organizations results show 61 percent have total support for the death penalty for those convicted of first-degree murder versus the 33 percent totally opposed.
An overwhelming majority of North Carolinians support the death penalty for the types of aggravated premeditated cold-blooded murder for which it can be imposed, Stam said. It is no surprise that during a moratorium few death sentences are imposed.
Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1