One year ago, I spent five weeks in a Raleigh courtroom listening to Wake County residents talk about the death penalty. As a defense attorney for Nathan Holden, who was facing the death penalty for killing his mother- and father-in-law and shooting his wife, I had the fascinating opportunity to talk to potential jurors and hear dozens of them respond to probing questions about their views on capital punishment.
Mr. Holden’s jury voted unanimously for life. And when another Wake County jury recently rejected the death penalty for Donovan Richardson, the ninth life verdict in a row, I wasn’t surprised. My conversations with jurors in the Holden case had already convinced me that the death penalty is effectively over in Wake County.
I grew up in Raleigh, and have spent the past 14 years working as a capital defense lawyer in my home state. I’ve learned a lot about the past and the present of the N.C. death penalty. In addition to recent cases like Mr. Holden’s, I represent defendants who were sentenced to death in the 1990s, when N.C. juries returned 25 or 35 death verdicts a year.
Since then, new death sentences across the state, as in Wake, have dropped to near zero. There are many likely reasons for this decline: better legal representation, open file discovery, prosecutors being granted greater discretion over which cases to try capitally. But sitting in that Raleigh courtroom for nearly two months last year convinced me that the biggest factor driving the decline of the death penalty is the attitudes of the ordinary citizens sitting on juries. Quite simply, the culture has shifted away from death.
In the ’90s, most jurors thought the death penalty was necessary for public safety. They doubted that a life sentence, with or without parole, was sufficient, and they were skeptical of mitigating evidence of mental illness or child abuse. Most presumed that execution was the fairest punishment for murder – death was the default; life required exceptional circumstances.
Many people in Wake County still support the death penalty in theory, but aside from that, their beliefs are the opposite of what we used to see. Almost all the jurors we talked to for the Holden trial accepted without question that life without parole is a brutal price to pay. In fact, several worried it was too severe. Most said they wanted to hear evidence about the defendant’s mental health and childhood trauma. Many expressed concerns about the fairness of the death penalty, from questions of innocence to racial disparities. Almost nobody said they thought the death penalty was necessary.
From what we’ve seen in Wake over the past decade, my observations were not an anomaly. Wake citizens have had nine opportunities to vote for death for defendants convicted of some shocking crimes: Samuel Cooper killed five men in five separate incidents; Jason Williford raped and bludgeoned state Board of Education member Kathy Taft; Nathan Holden shot three family members while his children cowered in a closet. All received life.
Twenty years ago, juries may well have sent these men to death row. I’m not sure what has changed jurors’ minds. I know that in Nathan Holden’s case, we worked hard to show the jury he was more than just a person who had committed murder. For many years, he was a loving father and a devoted husband. Growing up in a broken home, he made it his life’s goal to keep his family together. When that dream fell apart, he reacted in a way that was completely out-of-character.
More and more, juries seem willing to listen to stories like these, willing to see the defendant sitting in front of them as fully human. And I suspect that makes it very hard to vote for death – even if they believe in the death penalty in principle. Maybe there are no “worst of the worst,” just flawed human beings.
To get a death sentence, the prosecution must convince all 12 jurors to vote for death instead of life. Wake District Attorney Lorrin Freeman is the one making the choice to continue seeking the death penalty despite repeated unanimous verdicts for life. But she’s not the one picking the juries. My guess is if she talked to Wake County residents about the death penalty, she’d realize that her office will probably never again find 12 jurors willing to sentence someone to death.
Elizabeth Hambourger is a staff attorney at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation.