This year, for the second time since 2012, not a single person was sentenced to death in North Carolina.
Our state is clearly realizing that, while no punishment can heal the terrible grief of violent crime, life without parole is a tough and fair sentence for those who commit the worst crimes. The evidence bears that out.
North Carolina hasn’t executed anyone in nearly a decade. During this hiatus, our murder rates have gone down. At the same time, we have continued to discover innocent people in our state’s prisons. Two-thousand and fifteen saw Gov. Pat McCrory, a conservative “law and order” governor, give a rare pardon of innocence to my former client Henry McCollum, who spent 30 years wrongfully imprisoned on North Carolina’s death row.
In light of all that, this year’s zero death sentences might sound unsurprising. But for someone like me, who has fought to save the lives of capital defendants in North Carolina for 25 years, it is difficult to describe the seismic shift that number signals.
Try to imagine 1995. It wasn’t so long ago, though it feels like another lifetime. In that single year, 34 people were sentenced to death in North Carolina. There were at least 70 death penalty trials.
The Capital Defender’s Office, a state agency that now coordinates the defense of people facing the death penalty, did not yet exist. Those of us who represented capital defendants did so largely in isolation, for little pay, and knowing that any mistake could cost our clients their lives.
Prosecutors demanded death sentences even in cases where the defendants suffered serious mental illness, psychosis, or intellectual disabilities — even in cases where deaths were clearly accidental. Juries sometimes deliberated less than an hour before voting unanimously for a person’s execution. At least one elected district attorney celebrated each new death sentence by handing out noose-shaped lapel pins to his staff.
As a defense attorney, I was assigned one new capital client after the next — all impoverished, many mentally disabled, and most African-American.
One of my clients, Bo Jones, came within a few days of being executed in the 1990s because his prior attorneys had missed the deadline for filing his appeal. Years later, in 2008, all charges against him were dismissed and he was released because there was no credible evidence tying him to the crime.
Twenty years isn’t even long enough for a child to reach full adulthood. But somehow, it has been enough time for North Carolina to grow up. A state that once blindly trusted the criminal justice system to sift the guilty from innocent, and to determine who deserved to die, now sees that no system made up of human beings is deserving of that trust.
A state Innocence Inquiry Commission, along with several independent innocence projects, now pore over cases to find wrongful convictions — and the results have shown disturbing evidence that our system is deeply flawed. Seven innocent people who were sentenced to death in North Carolina have been exonerated since 1999.
Our last execution was carried out in August 2006, and with each passing year the death penalty becomes more a part of North Carolina’s past than its future. Juries have handed down just six death verdicts in the past five years. This year, the state pursued the death penalty at four trials but wasn’t successful in any, needlessly spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on each failed attempt.
People on all sides are realizing that capital punishment is wasteful and ineffective. In the past few months, a former death penalty prosecutor who sent five people to death row and a Republican state legislator have taken public stands against the death penalty.
North Carolina is in step with the nation. We are now among a majority of states that have abandoned the death penalty, either in law or in practice. Across the United States, new death sentences and executions reached historic lows this year. Just six states carried out executions, and many were horribly botched. Even Texas sentenced only two people to death in 2015.
As I look out across this changed landscape, it’s tempting to feel that the 1990s were just a bad dream — except that many of the people we sent to death row in that frenzy of bloodlust are still there today. A stunning 104 of North Carolina’s 147 death row inmates were sentenced between 1990 and 2000.
Even as we finally see the error of our ways, we are still paying for the mistakes of the past.
Ken Rose is a senior staff attorney at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham.