Recently, our district attorney’s seasoned lawyers offered a Wake County jury the option of imposing a death sentence. The crime was horrifying and senseless. A young mother, Melissa Huggins-Jones, was beaten to death during a burglary while her child slept down the hall. The pain it caused her family is immeasurable. The jury understood this and chose life without parole, a punishment that will ensure Travion Smith dies in prison.
This was the sixth consecutive time a Wake County jury has chosen life without parole rather than death.
In order to serve on a capital case, a juror must be able and willing to sentence a person to death. This fact alone rules out many good citizens. In the most recent case, jurors spoke not just for themselves, but for all of Wake County and perhaps all of North Carolina. Their message was clear: We want life, not death.
It has been nearly a decade since a defendant has been sentenced to death here, but that was not always the situation. Even after a nine-year respite from death sentences, Wake County still has one of the largest death row populations in the state.
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Our new district attorney, Lorrin Freeman, appears to understand that times have changed. After this most recent life verdict, she said she would reconsider pursuing the death penalty in future cases. I know and respect Freeman and hope that her ultimate decision will be to spare Wake County any more capital trials, while allowing the equally tough and unyielding sentence of life without parole to serve the purpose that death sentences once did.
Failed attempts to secure a death sentence are wasteful and excruciating. First, defendants facing the death penalty are entitled to two attorneys. What’s more, every death penalty case requires a second “penalty phase,” which is akin to a second trial – complete with its own opening and closing statements, experts and lay witnesses, and jury deliberations.
At the penalty phase, the state works to show, in vivid detail, the horror and devastating impact of the crime. At Smith’s trial, the victim’s now 10-year-old daughter testified during the penalty phase about finding her mother’s body. Meanwhile, the defense is left to explore every detail of the defendant’s childhood, alcohol and drug abuse, and psychological problems. For everyone involved, the process adds yet more pain and trauma.
There used to be a sound reason for the ordeal of a capital trial. Until the late 1990s, North Carolina simply did not have a sentence of life without parole, meaning the only way for a jury to ensure a defendant was never released from prison was to sentence him or her to death. When a death sentence was imposed, it was likely to be carried out.
North Carolina hasn’t executed an inmate since 2006, meaning those sentenced to death are likely to sit in prison for decades never facing an executioner.
Also, we have watched one innocent person after another removed from death row, seven since 1999. The last was Henry McCollum, who sat on death row for 30 years before being released in September 2014 when DNA evidence revealed his innocence.
Finally, dozens of studies have totally debunked that the age-old justification for the death penalty – that it serves as a deterrent.
In 2016, it only makes sense to embrace life without parole, a punishment that keeps the public safe without wasting resources or risking the execution of an innocent person.
Considering all the facts and the community’s clear message, I believe it is time to make life without parole Wake County’s maximum sentence.
Wade M. Smith is an attorney at Tharrington Smith, LLP, in Raleigh.