Today, there are 141 people on North Carolina’s death row. By comparison, in Virginia, a state with similar politics, demographics, and crime rates, there are just three.
It is both out of line with other states and out of character for North Carolina to have such an outsized death row — especially one made up mostly of people whose trials and sentences are outdated and grossly unfair.
The vast majority of North Carolina’s death row inmates were tried in the 1990s before the state, true to its historically progressive ways, passed a whole slew of new laws to make capital prosecutions fair. However, these reforms do not apply to those who were already convicted.
Men like Nathan Bowie, convicted and sentenced to death in Catawba County in 1993. At trial he was represented by an incompetent lawyer who reeked of alcohol and later died of an alcohol-related illness. Three of his clients went to death row, and one has proven his innocence. Today in North Carolina, Nathan Bowie would be represented by a state-funded indigent defense agency with lawyers experienced in capital trials.
And Johnny Burr, convicted and sentenced to death in Alamance County in 1993 after his lawyers conceded his guilt without bothering to look at evidence favorable to his innocence. Today, Johnny Burr’s rights would be protected by seasoned trial attorneys.
And Johnny Daughtry, convicted and sentenced to death in Johnston County in 1997 after the prosecutor concealed evidence that pointed to another suspect and raised credible doubts about Daughtry’s guilt. Today, in North Carolina as in almost every state, prosecutors are required to turn over all the evidence in their files.
And Elrico Fowler, convicted and sentenced to death in 1997 in Mecklenburg County. The State’s case rested almost entirely on the testimony of an eyewitness who picked Fowler out of a police lineup, but only after Fowler’s photo was published with news reports about the crime and shown to the witness on multiple occasions. Today in North Carolina, police lineups are subject to strict guidelines.
And Timothy Richardson, who was sentenced to death in Nash County in 1995 despite clear evidence that he has intellectual disabilities brought on by fetal alcohol syndrome and severe lead poisoning as a toddler. Today, in North Carolina as in every state, the death penalty cannot be imposed on defendants with intellectual disabilities, yet Richardson remains on death row.
Sadly, the list goes on. Seventy-five percent of North Carolina’s death row inmates were tried before all these reforms and would face radically different prosecutions today. Almost none would get the death penalty. For some, the charges would be dropped.
What has happened in the past 25 years? Back when these men were tried, the death penalty enjoyed widespread support and executions were common. Juries sent dozens of people to death row, many of them black and nearly all of them poor. Now, though, North Carolina has gone 12 years without an execution (four in Virginia) and only one person has received a death sentence in the past four years (seven in Virginia).
Public attitudes are shifting dramatically. Hundreds of high-profile DNA exonerations have made jurors skeptical of the tactics used by police and prosecutors. They have also brought about many of the reforms that North Carolina and other states have adopted. Defense lawyers are better trained and paid. Jurors are more sympathetic when they know the backgrounds of the people they are sentencing.
The death penalty is dying, not because of the courage of lawmakers or judges, but because of the compassion shown by jurors who are fully informed in trials that are fair. Jurors are easier to convince that life without parole is harsh enough.
By today’s standards, and certainly under today’s laws, the bulk of North Carolina’s death row inmates did not receive fair trials.
It’s time for North Carolina to stop fighting for executions that represent not its future, but the battles of an unjust past.