There is a deadly battle going on in the courts of the United States. It has lasted for decades. The battle is between those favoring the death penalty and those opposed to it.
In North Carolina we have 150 people on death row. Fifty-five North Carolina Counties have prisoners on death row. Forty-five counties have no one there.
It is clear that people in certain counties have been more likely to receive a death sentence than others. For instance, Durham County has no one on death row. Its neighbor, Wake County has ten. Guilford County has three prisoners on death row. Yet, its neighbor, Forsyth County, has twelve.
The last execution in North Carolina was on August 18, 2006, ten years ago.
There are many things that keep prisoners from being executed in North Carolina. Here are six of them:
1. The legislature passed the Racial Justice Act. It made it extremely difficult for death sentences to be upheld on appeal. That law has been repealed, but the result is that most (if not all) death sentence cases are under appeal. Resolution of this problem will take months – perhaps years.
2. The law requires a doctor to be present during executions. However, both the American Medical Association and the North Carolina Medical Board have ruled that doctors should NOT be present at executions.
In response to this, the legislature has passed a law which states that participation in executions is not the practice of medicine. The intent was to protect doctors who attended an execution from discipline by medical boards. It is unlikely that this law will entice doctors to participate in executions. Whether it is practicing medicine or not, it is still helping to kill someone. Second, the propriety of that law will continue to be litigated.
3. The State has to find the appropriate drugs to cause death. Many companies have refused to sell the drugs to states that will use them in executions. Then, once the chemicals are picked, there will be legal challenges to those particular chemicals.
4. It will be at least two years before executions are scheduled. The passing of 12 or more years from the last execution will make it more unpleasant to restart executions. Judges will tend to grant stays of executions.
It is one thing to believe in the death penalty. It is quite another thing to actually carry out the sentence. If you were a nurse or technician, would you insert the needle?
5. Other objections to our death penalty law will arise.
6. As time goes by, people will become more opposed to the death penalty.
7. Increasingly, juries are more willing to approve the alternative of life without parole.
It is extremely unlikely that our governor or legislature will do away with the death penalty. Yet no executions are being carried out. Will we continue to travel this road indefinitely? It is extremely frustrating to the families of the victims. They have to bear up, as appeal after appeal is filed. They are sorely tired of that, and seek a resolution. Does it make sense to reduce the number of people on death row – and replace the death sentences to life without parole?
Here are ways to do that:
The first is to remove all prisoners over 65 years old. Execution of older prisoners can be considered gruesome. One of our death row prisoners is an 83 year old woman.
The second is to remove the prisoners with the best criminal records. However, it is very unlikely that it will be chosen. Two of the reasons are;1. Who will make this decision? Who is willing to say that this prisoner is spared and the next prisoner is kept on death row?
The third choice would be to take the cases that have been on death row the longest and change those sentences to life without parole. For instance, we could choose those cases in which the conviction took place before 1996. If this is done it would remove 50 cases from death row.
This would be a compromise. It would be a significant reduction of the number of people on death row yet it would not do away with the death penalty. Further reasons for this choice are:
1. It is more likely that there were improprieties in the trial of cases before 1996. Newer cases have more protections to the defendants.
2. There is a precedent to clearing out death row. In 1976. The U.S. Supreme Court held that the NC. death sentence statute was unconstitutional. As a result, the 120 death row prisoners had their sentences vacated, or had new trials, or were re-sentenced to life. From 1976 to 1984, no executions took place in NC,
3. The victims in the older cases may be more willing to accept the lesser punishment.
Many families of the victims may have become worn out and frustrated at the endless appeals they may want the cases to be over and done with.
Stanley Peele of Chapel Hill is a retired district judge.