Opinion

As death sentences decline, NC should end them

Henry McCollum sits stunned as applause rings out in a Robeson County courtroom in Lumberton, on Sept. 2, 2014 after a judge declared him and his brother Leon Brown innocent of a brutal rape murder that occurred in 1983. McCollum spent more than 30 years on North Carolina’s death row before being exonerated based on DNA evidence.
Henry McCollum sits stunned as applause rings out in a Robeson County courtroom in Lumberton, on Sept. 2, 2014 after a judge declared him and his brother Leon Brown innocent of a brutal rape murder that occurred in 1983. McCollum spent more than 30 years on North Carolina’s death row before being exonerated based on DNA evidence.

In North Carolina, 2018 may be remembered as the year the death penalty died.

The Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation (CDPL) reports that this year marks the first time in the state’s modern history that North Carolina juries have not imposed a new death sentence for two years in a row. The reluctance of juries to impose the ultimate punishment in 2017 may have been a fluke, but a second year without a death sentence shows that juries have all but given up on a penalty that has been unevenly imposed on the guilty and sometimes on the innocent.

“The death penalty in North Carolina has become a relic,” said Gretchen Engel, CDPL’s executive director. “Very few district attorneys seek death anymore and, when they do, juries reject it. The people of our state are speaking very clearly. We no longer need the death penalty to keep North Carolina safe.”

High-profile killings still move prosecutors to seek the death penalty. In Robeson County, the retiring district attorney said that if he was continuing in office he would put the man accused of kidnapping and killing 13-year-old Hania Aguilar on trial for his life. But it’s telling that District Attorney-elect Matthew Scott, who will take office in January, said he has not committed to a capital trial.

There were three capital trials in the state this year, but the juries in each case chose to impose life without parole instead of death sentences. The state’s last execution was in 2006. Wake County, however, has been slow to give up on the costly and inherently unfair practice of seeking death for some accused killers and not for others. Over the past three years, Wake prosecutors have sought the death penalty in at least one case every year. Looking ahead to 2019, Wake is the only North Carolina county with two capital trials already on the calendar, according to CDPL.

Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said her office has sought the death penalty in less than 5 percent of murder cases, but she thinks it is an option that juries should have “in the most egregious of cases where aggravating factors are clear.”

In pursuing death sentences, Wake is bucking a national as well as a state trend. Twenty states have outlawed the penalty entirely and only eight states carried out an execution in 2018. Polls show that support for the death penalty has declined since the Supreme Court allowed executions to resume in 1976. Americans recognize that it is applied unfairly and the claim that it’s a deterrent has been roundly debunked.

Still, the consequences of the death penalty’s previous popularity remain. North Carolina has 140 prisoners on death row, the sixth largest group in the nation. The arrests and trials that led to those sentences date mostly to the 1990s, before reforms were passed to protect the innocent and provide for fair representation. The cases are rife with problems of procedure, racial bias and misconduct by authorities. North Carolina has had men on death row who were later found to be innocent. In one case, Henry McCollum spent more than 30 years on North Carolina’s death row before being exonerated by DNA evidence.

It’s time for North Carolina to ban the death penalty and convert the sentences of all on death row.

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