State Politics

In N.C., death penalty gets rarer

North Carolina will finish this year with just one defendant sentenced to death, a record low since the penalty was reinstated 31 years ago.

The single capital murder conviction this year continues a downward trend fueled by better criminal defense lawyers and new laws that exclude the mentally challenged and make prosecution evidence more accessible.

In North Carolina, more people on death row have been exonerated this year -- two -- than were sentenced to death. A de facto death penalty moratorium in North Carolina -- as the courts, state officials and the medical profession debate the ethics of lethal injections -- has prevented anyone from being executed for the past two years.

This year, 13 juries could have chosen death for defendants. Only one in Forsyth County did. Last month, a jury there gave the death sentence to James Ray Little III for shooting a cab driver to death two years ago in Winston-Salem. There will be no more capital murder trials before Wednesday, the end of the year.

"Only one death sentence, when you think about it, is extraordinary," said Gerda Stein, a spokeswoman for the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham, which represents death row defendants who appeal their sentences.

The numbers suggest that juries are less likely to impose the ultimate punishment. In 1996, there were 60 capital trials resulting in 34 death sentences in North Carolina.

The decline in death sentences is a national trend, but North Carolina's is among the most pronounced, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.

Changes in the law

Several changes in state law have made it less likely for those charged with first-degree murder to face execution.

Before 2001, district attorneys had to seek the death penalty in cases with aggravating circumstances, such as murders committed during armed robberies. But that requirement was lifted and now prosecutors often seek life without parole in such cases. Court statistics show a steep drop in death sentences since that change.

Other recent laws have opened prosecutors' files to defense lawyers, barred the death penalty for defendants with IQs of 70 or below, and allowed DNA testing of biological evidence that might exonerate those convicted of a crime.

The state has also set up the Office of Indigent Defense Services, which is intended to provide better representation of criminal defendants who lack the resources for effective counsel.

Tom Horner, president of the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys, said the de facto moratorium might be influencing prosecutors' decisions to seek life without parole instead of the death penalty. Capital murder cases are much more expensive and time consuming, he said, because defendants are entitled to additional services that include more expert witnesses and test juries.

"It's just a tremendously different beast than just trying someone non-capitally," said Horner, the district attorney for Alleghany, Ashe, Wilkes and Yadkin counties.

Bias suspected

Jeremy Collins, director of the N.C. Coalition for a Moratorium, said the state should enact laws to remove bias from murder trials. Last year, the state House passed a Racial Justice Act, which would allow condemned inmates to use statistics to try to prove that their race was the reason they were sentenced to death. The legislation is pending in the Senate.

A UNC study in 2001 found defendants were more likely to face the death penalty if the victim was white. Collins also said the state needs to examine the fairness of death sentences that occurred before reforms that gave prosecutors the option to not seek the death penalty and guarded against inadequate defense counsel.

"At some point we are going to have to look at our standards of decency," Collins said. "Do we continue to execute people under our old laws?"

Horner said there's no need to tinker further with death penalty laws. He urged state lawmakers to vote on whether the state should allow executions to continue.

State lawmakers continue to examine the death penalty. In two weeks, a committee will begin looking at whether those with severe mental disabilities should face capital punishment.

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