The Center for Death Penalty Litigation is staffed and supported by righteous people but in an end-of-year piece this week it needed no emotion to make the case against the death penalty in North Carolina. And, though it would be quite enough to end the penalty based on wrongful convictions that might have turned into death sentences, there are other, sensible reasons that ought to appeal to people across party lines and philosophical lines as well.
The center notes that the death penalty is fading from favor both across the nation and in North Carolina, which used to issue a lot of death sentences. In this year, North Carolina marked 10 years without an execution, and only five people had been tried for capital crimes statewide. Nationally, death sentences were “at their lowest point in the modern era of the death penalty,” the center wrote, with just 20 executions in the United States. The respected Pew Research Center put out a poll this fall showing that a majority of Americans are opposed to the death penalty.
Gretchen Engel, executive director of the center, brought the issue close to home: “Look at Wake County, which used to send people to death row almost every year, but hasn’t had a new death sentence in almost a decade. This year, in the sixth case in a row, a Wake County jury chose a sentence of life without parole over the death penalty. Society’s beliefs have shifted, and in the overwhelming majority of cases, people no longer think it’s appropriate.”
Just 20 years ago, 20 to 30 people a year were sent to death row across North Carolina, but in the past five years, the average is fewer than two people a year.
Even so, the state has the sixth largest death row in the country with 150 inmates awaiting execution, but the vast majority of those — 75 percent — were given the penalty at least 15 years ago.
The expense of maintaining death row is in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, and the expense to the public of pursuing the death penalty has of course been in the millions over decades. And the inmates on death row grow older, creating what Engel calls “a costly warehouse for the elderly.”
It is simply not worth the risk — of executing the wrong person — and certainly not the expense to maintain the death penalty in this state. This drains the taxpayers’ purse and patience and emotions. Certainly all can feel sympathy for the families of murder victims, who understandably want revenge for often-horrendous crimes against their loved ones. But the state has to understand it is in the business of justice, not revenge. And taking away a murderer’s life for all time by incarcerating him or her is justice.