It has been a bad year for the death penalty and thus a good year for North Carolina. The state has not had an execution since 2006, and for the second time since 2012, no one was sentenced to death in this state.
Despite the protestations of opportunistic politicians who want the state, in the name of the citizenry, to be in the revenge business, the state has passed nearly 10 years without a death penalty being carried out. Murder rates have gone down, as they have in other states that do not employ, by law or practice, the death penalty.
Ken Rose, an attorney with the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham, wrote for N.C. Policy Watch about his own experiences defending people facing the death penalty. One came within days of execution only to be exonerated. His clients, Rose wrote, were “all impoverished, many mentally disabled, and most African-American.”
Does a death sentence bring a victim back to life? No, though it may understandably give a victim’s family some solace. The problem is that it is not the state’s job to win revenge but to carry out justice.
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In the case of the death penalty, that justice is decidedly imperfect. Rose notes that seven innocent people who were sentenced to death have been exonerated since 1999. How can the death penalty be defended in light of that?
The pursuit of the death penalty, as Rose notes, has had the feeling of blood lust about it on the part of some district attorneys. One former DA in North Carolina was known as the “deadliest prosecutor in America,” winning that recognition in the Guinness Book of World Records.
But why does the state now have an agency, the Capital Defender’s Office, focused on the defense of people facing the death penalty? Why does it have an Innocence Inquiry Commission to look at possible wrongful convictions? It’s because the death penalty is the one punishment that cannot be corrected once carried out. And those in the justice system, from judges to defense attorneys to prosecutors, know that the system is imperfect and, absent daily divine intervention, never could be perfect.
The state doesn’t need to risk having the blood of an innocent person on its hands, in the name of the people, many of whom don’t happen to believe that the death penalty should be part of the system.
The state’s justice system has survived for nearly a decade now in effect without a death penalty. It should always be thus.