On June 19, Gov. Pat McCrory signed into law the repeal of the Racial Justice Act, a groundbreaking law that people across North Carolina worked for years to enact. Our hope, as supporters of the Racial Justice Act, was that it would finally take race out of the equation when deciding who receives the death penalty in North Carolina. When it was repealed, the law was just beginning to do its job. Four of North Carolina’s more than 150 death row inmates had presented their cases to a judge and had proven, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that racial bias in jury selection had profoundly affected their sentences. All four were resentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Two other inmates had their cases dismissed without a hearing. The courts were capably and efficiently working their way through these important cases.
As the N.C. NAACP aptly noted, the governor chose the occasion of Juneteenth — a holiday that celebrates the freeing, in 1865, of many enslaved African-Americans — to sign the repeal. On this day, of all days, our state repealed a law that aimed to remove the vestiges of institutional racism from our capital punishment system. We ignore history at our peril. It has shown us, again and again, that we are not capable of using the death penalty fairly and without bias.
I still have difficulty believing that the state abandoned this law after a seasoned and well-respected superior court judge found pervasive racial discrimination across the system. However, I do not see this as the end of the road, only another detour on the path toward justice. I believe that time is running out for the death penalty in North Carolina and across the country. We may look back on the repeal of the Racial Justice Act as a last act of desperation by some conservatives and prosecutors to preserve what has served them well in the past as a politically potent issue.
They don’t seem to notice that the public is no longer clamoring for executions. Seven years have passed without an execution in North Carolina, and few people seem to have noticed except prosecutors who have been the focus of Racial Justice Act claims. There have been no public demonstrations or rising calls for executions, and the statewide murder rate has fallen. Across the state, death-qualified juries consisting entirely of persons who support the death penalty have returned a total of one death sentence in the past 18 months.
Recent polling demonstrates that North Carolinians oppose the death penalty when they consider an alternative of life without parole and restitution to the families of the victims. In a poll taken in February, 68 percent favored ending the death penalty if offenders were required to work and pay restitution to their victims’ families. Sixty-three percent of respondents, the majority of whom identified themselves as conservative or moderate, said they supported replacing the death penalty with life in prison without parole if the money now spent on capital punishment were redirected to crime fighting. Fifty-five percent supported ending the death penalty if the money was redirected to solving cold cases and assisting victims.
During the period since executions stopped, many troubling facts about our capital punishment system have emerged. Three new death row inmates have been exonerated and released, bringing the total of innocent people released from death row to seven in the modern era of the death penalty. The State Bureau of Investigation has admitted to falsifying or mischaracterizing forensic evidence in hundreds of trials, including capital ones. There still has not been a full investigation into this scandal, despite the fact that the SBI crime lab provided the evidence supporting the convictions of many of those persons currently on death row. There are more reasons than ever to reconsider this punishment which, once imposed, can never be undone.
If you need more evidence of the death penalty’s declining stock, consider this fact: Six states in the past six years have repealed the death penalty. They recognized that the continued use of the death penalty in light of the possibility of executing an innocent person, the excessive cost, the demonstrated racism in its application, and the absence of any evidence of a deterrent effect had a corrosive effect on their criminal justice systems. Since 2004, 29 innocent people have been released from death rows across the country. Recently, a national coalition of conservatives has come together to express its concerns about the death penalty and call for its abolition.
We may not have seen the last execution in our state. But I feel better knowing that there are many thoughtful and decent people who will not rest until we put an end to this unjust punishment.
Ken Rose is a Staff Attorney at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation.