As North Carolinians inch further away from the death penalty, Republican legislative leaders are attempting to initiate a new march back toward a resumption of executions.
The state hasn’t put anyone to death since 2006 because of pending litigation over numerous legal issues – including lethal injection practices and racial bias at trials – and four juries last year rejected the practice altogether. That makes this the third year since 2012 with no new death sentences.
When that news broke last week, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore almost immediately tossed out an inflammatory claim in response — namely, that Gov. Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein stand between the death sentences for four inmates charged with first-degree murder in the killings of three state correctional officers and a prison rehabilitative work program manager.
“In light of the prosecutor’s decision [to seek the death penalty in these cases], we again urge you to take swift action to make certain, should a jury sentence these mend to death that those sentences can be carried out,” Berger and Moore wrote in a letter to Cooper and Stein.
The problem with Berger and Moore’s assertion? It’s untrue.
Juries of those four inmates’ peers stand between their possible executions. North Carolina juries and the law.
Both Cooper and Stein support the death penalty and have records to prove it. They also support upholding the law and say that they frown upon politicizing the deaths of the correctional employees.
“The Attorney General supports the death penalty for the most heinous crimes,” said AG Office spokeswoman Laura Brewer. “He will make decisions about how to proceed on these cases – as he does in every case – based on the law and the facts. He also believes that it’s wrong to politicize the deaths of our brave correctional officers.”
Berger and Moore, however, demanded that Cooper and Stein justify their actions or inactions during their respective terms as Attorney General. Berger tweeted out the letter  they wrote.
“In your capacities as attorneys general, have you taken any serious action to fast-track the legal proceedings to ensure that the victims’ families can see justice served, especially since the federal constitutional claims raised in the Wake County case have already been adjudicated in other states all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court?” they ask. “If not, and you failed as attorneys general to take proactive, significant legal action against a judge’s injunction against capital punishment in 2007 and the resulting de-facto moratorium, then that amounts to opposition to the death penalty – the law in North Carolina.”
Failure? Cooper’s office thinks not.
“Legal challenges halted capital punishment in North Carolina and only the courts can restart it,” said deputy communications director Noelle Talley. “Capital punishment remains the law of the state and Governor Cooper has a long history of upholding it.”
But that’s the political battle.
The real tale “on the ground” is told by the Center for Death Penalty Litigation , a non-profit law firm that provides direct representation to inmates on North Carolina’s death row, as well as consulting with and training attorneys who practice capital litigation across the state.
The group wrote last week about the state’s waning support for the death penalty.
Juries in Wake, Granville and Guilford counties all chose life without parole instead of death this year. At a fourth capital trial in Robeson County, the jury said the defendant was guilty only of second-degree murder and he was sentenced to a term of years.
Only a single person has been sent to North Carolina’s death row in the past three and a half years, and most of the state’s district attorneys are no longer seeking the death penalty, according to the organization.
“There are some elected officials in North Carolina who still like to talk about the death penalty for political purposes, but that’s about the only way it’s being used anymore,” said Gretchen M. Engel, Executive Director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation (CDPL). “The reality is most citizens of North Carolina no longer have any use for the death penalty, not after seeing an innocent man like Henry McCollum spend 30 years there.”
McCollum was released in 2014 after DNA testing proved he was innocent of the 1983 crime for which he was sentenced to death.
Nationally, there were four death row inmates exonerated this year, bringing the total to 160. A Gallup poll released in October found that Americans’ support for the death penalty had reached its lowest point in 45 years, according to the year-end report released last week by the Death Penalty Information Center.
At the local level, questions of innocence arose this year in North Carolina for Michael Patrick Ryan, who was sentenced to death in 2010 in Gaston County and is awaiting trial after a judge ruled in February that misleading DNA evidence was used against him and that prosecution investigators intimidated his alibi witnesses.
CDPL advocates also highlighted Phillip Davis’s case from Buncombe County. He was removed from death row in February and re-sentenced to life without parole after the court found that race played an improper role in selecting the all-white jury that sentenced him to death. Davis, who was just a few months past his 18th birthday at the time of the crime, spent 20 years on death row before being re-sentenced.
The state’s death row also shrunk this year because five inmates died of natural causes. Today, 140 men and three women remain on death row, according to CDPL.
“Almost half, 69 of them, are 50 or older,” a news release states. “More than three-quarters of death row inmates were sentenced at least 15 years ago, in an era when North Carolina juries sentenced to death dozens of people a year under less enlightened laws.”
Engel wrote that the law used to force prosecutors to seek the death penalty in almost every first-degree murder case, even when they believed the circumstances called for mercy or there were questions of innocence.
“If we were to restart executions, we would be putting to death people who were tried decades ago without basic legal protections,” Engel said. “Executions would do nothing to solve the problems of today. We would be better served to choose life imprisonment instead and divert the millions of dollars we spend on the death penalty to law enforcement and corrections officers, who unlike the death penalty, make our society safer.”
As for the recent political battles surrounding the state of the death penalty in North Carolina, Engel said Berger and Moore were incorrect in their assumptions that Cooper or Stein could take action.
“The matter is in the hands of the court,” she added, noting that both Cooper and Stein, as they said, aggressively pursued the death penalty in their capacities as attorneys general.
Engel added that lawmakers needed to take heed of North Carolinians’ clear message when it comes to the death penalty.
“Both citizens and our elected officials, district attorneys, are turning away from the death penalty,” she said.