Recently, former President Jimmy Carter called for the abolition of the death penalty based on continued and significant evidence that, just as in 1972, the application of our ultimate punishment is as arbitrary as a lightning strike. North Carolina’s recent repeal of the Racial Justice Act was designed to remove an important barrier to the resumption of executions, on hold since 2006. But the state, like the nation, is unlikely to return to the days of greater use of the ultimate punishment.
Nor should it.
The death penalty has become almost purely symbolic, applied only in extremely rare instances, and in a limited number of legal jurisdictions that seem to have little in common except that they differ from the vast majority of the United States in their occasional use of capital punishment. The majority of death sentences since the modern resumption of the death penalty in 1976 come from only two percent of U.S. counties. The vast majority of counties, nationwide, have never witnessed an execution.
In North Carolina, from 1976 through 2011, over 21,000 homicides occurred. But during that period there were only 43 executions: just one execution per 489 homicides, or 0.2 percent. Why so few? Actually, the North Carolina numbers are not far from the national average. Nationally, we often have 15,000 to 20,000 homicides each year, but we consistently execute fewer than 100 people per year. Death is simply not the penalty for murder, and it never has been.
When the Supreme Court ruled the application of the death penalty to be unconstitutional in 1972, its focus was on the “arbitrary and capricious” nature of its application. The decision prompted a massive overhaul of the nation’s death penalty system, including innumerable reforms in North Carolina. However, even the most well-intentioned reforms have not succeeded in making the death penalty’s application equitable.
Our state has executed 43 individuals for murder since 1976. Collectively, these condemned inmates killed 56 victims. Forty-two percent of people murdered in North Carolina during that time were black men. However, only one person has been executed for the crime of killing a black man. (A second was executed for killing three individuals, one of whom was a black man.) Forty-three percent of the victims of those executed in North Carolina were white women, even though white females represent only 13 percent of homicide victims during this period. In our state, people who kill white women are 40 times more likely to be executed than those who kill black men, based on the numbers from 1976 to present.
Recent litigation associated with the now-defunct Racial Justice Act demonstrated that blacks were systematically excluded from juries in capital trials at significantly higher rates than whites. The response of the legislature was to rescind the legislation in hopes that executions could resume. But we should recognize that the death penalty has never been used as the punishment for homicide. Rather, it has always been targeted at only a miniscule subset of homicides. The process is highly selective and subject to geographic disparities. The death penalty is also far more costly than the alternative punishment of life without the possibility of parole, and is used so rarely as to render moot any possible deterrent effect. More than 100 individuals, including several in our state, have been exonerated after being sentenced to death. This discovery of innocence has transformed the debate. Further, in North Carolina as in most states, the vast majority of death sentences imposed by the courts are later overturned on appeal. Only about 20 percent of those sentenced to death nationwide have been executed. The more likely outcome is that the sentence is later changed to life in prison without parole. Rather than continue this costly and racially-charged symbol, we would all be better off with abolition.
The Gallup poll recorded the lowest level of support for the death penalty in 40 years, based on its recent survey. Sixty percent (60%) of Americans say they support the death penalty, a sharp decline from the 80% support registered in 1994. When Gallup has asked respondents to choose between the death penalty and life without parole as a sentence for murder, less than 50% of Americans expressed support for the death penalty (Gallup, Oct. 29, 2013).
There is, of course, little chance that our current legislative leaders in Raleigh will move away from their stated enthusiasm for the death penalty. But as more Americans recognize that the system is costly, arbitrary, ineffective, prone to error, and biased in terms of the race, class status, and gender of the victims, capital punishment will disappear. That trend has already begun. Six states have abolished the death penalty in the past six years, and many more, including North Carolina, have not carried out an execution in years. It is only a matter of time before our state recognizes that the death penalty is a failed policy that must be abandoned. When it does, it will be a victory for the due process of law and equal protection for all victims of horrible crimes.
Frank R. Baumgartner is the Richard J. Richardson Distinguished Professor of Political Science at UNC-Chapel Hill. For more information on the many problems with North Carolina’s capital punishment system, visit http://www.nccadp.org/.