Last week, a Wake County jury refused to vote for a death sentence for the eighth time in a row. A Wake jury has not returned a death sentence in almost a decade, each time choosing the harsh and effective punishment of life with no possibility of parole instead.
When you look at the state of the death penalty today, it’s no wonder juries don’t want to impose death sentences. Nearly 160 innocent people have been released from death rows across the country, nine of them in North Carolina. Executions have been on hold for a decade in North Carolina with no prospect of them restarting.
I was police chief in Southern Pines for 17 years and spent 30 years in law enforcement before retiring in 2005. I understand the toll that violence can take. In 1991, one of my investigators, Ed Harris, was shot to death in retaliation for a drug investigation.
At one time, I thought death sentences were needed to punish crimes like that. Now, I – just like the jurors who are increasingly rejecting death sentences – have seen enough to know that the death penalty is often little more than a false promise that does little to improve public safety.
Our society, including many public safety officials like myself, is beginning to see that the death penalty has no effect on murder rates, costs more than life without parole and sometimes results in terrible mistakes.
In the end, the whole costly exercise is often for nothing – as inmates sit on death row for decades with no prospect of execution. Meanwhile, the death-sentenced criminals continue with their appeals, and families of victims are left waiting for the “closure” that was promised to them.
Speeding up the process is simply not feasible, if we care about making sure that innocent people are not executed. Just look at Henry McCollum, who was proven innocent by DNA testing in 2014 – after 30 years on North Carolina’s death row.
As a career law enforcement officer, I am not alone in my belief that the death penalty does not make us safer. I’m a member of a national organization, Public Safety Officials on the Death Penalty, which is made up of more than 70 law enforcement officials, prosecutors, and corrections officials who all believe it’s time to ask serious questions about the death penalty’s effectiveness.
Here in North Carolina, Jennie Lancaster, a former prison warden and Chief Deputy Secretary at the N.C. Department of Corrections, has joined with me to express her concerns about the business of state-sponsored executions.
After helping to manage 14 of them in North Carolina, Lancaster says that they create hardship for prison employees and serve no public safety purpose, since inmates who have committed murder can be – and are – managed within prison walls every day.
In the case of Harris, my officer who was killed in the line of duty, the killers were sentenced before life without parole was an option under North Carolina law, and received life plus 60 years. Had they been sentenced today, they would likely have received life with no possibility of parole.
That sentence would have assured that they remained where they belonged, behind bars and forgotten, paying for their crimes for the rest of their lives. In my opinion, that would have been far more just than sentencing them to death and putting Ed’s grieving family through years of appeals and decades of waiting for an execution.
Life without parole is the kind of strong, swift and uncompromising punishment we need to consider in North Carolina.
Gerald Galloway is a retired police chief of Southern Pines.