UPDATE: You can now explore this project as a website and interactive database on its own website, On Trial For Their Lives.
Death penalty advocates say executions are needed to punish a small handful of the “worst of the worst” criminals. However, a new report from the Center for Death Penalty Litigation finds that the death penalty in North Carolina is being used broadly and indiscriminately, with little regard for the strength of the evidence against defendants — and putting innocent people at risk of being sentenced to die.
On Trial for Their Lives: The Hidden Costs of Wrongful Capital Prosecutions in North Carolina is the first study in the United States of cases in which people were charged or prosecuted capitally but never convicted. The study finds that 56 people since 1989 — about two a year — have been capitally prosecuted in North Carolina despite evidence too weak to prove their guilt. The wrongful prosecutions happened in 31 counties in every region of the state.
The report comes on the heels of the exoneration of Henry McCollum, North Carolina’s longest serving death row inmate. It exposes another facet of a capital punishment system that targets innocent people with the death penalty. Considering that only 40 people have been executed in North Carolina in the time period the report covers, more people have faced the death penalty and not been convicted of a crime than have been executed in North Carolina.
“Many say we need the death penalty to punish the very worst offenders for the most heinous crimes, but that is not how the death penalty is being used,” said senior CDPL attorney Ken Rose, who represented McCollum for 20 years. “People are being charged capitally based on the thinnest of evidence. Prosecutors are using the threat of the death penalty to persuade people to plead guilty. If we keep using the death penalty like this, North Carolina will sentence more innocent people to death.”
While it is inevitable that innocent people will occasionally be swept up in investigations, the report finds that the system took years to correct its errors and that shoddy investigations or misconduct were frequently a factor.
These unjust prosecutions had a devastating impact on the lives of the defendants — as well as a large public cost. The report finds that:
- The state spent nearly $2.4 million in defense costs alone to pursue these failed cases capitally. Had the defendants been charged non-capitally, all that money could have been saved. (This conservative figure does not take into account the additional prosecution and incarceration costs in capital cases.)
- Defendants who were wrongfully prosecuted spent an average of two years in jail before they were acquitted by juries or had their charges dismissed by prosecutors.
- The 56 defendants in the study spent a total of 112 years in jail, despite never being convicted of a crime.
- By the time they were cleared of wrongdoing, many defendants lost their homes, jobs, businesses, and savings accounts, and saw personal relationships destroyed. They received no compensation after they were cleared of charges.
- Serious errors or misconduct played a role in many cases. The 56 cases involved instances of witness coercion, hidden evidence, bungled investigations, the use of improper forensic evidence, and highly unreliable witnesses.
Interviews with defendants and attorneys show that North Carolina is using the threat of the death penalty as leverage to encourage defendants to confess or accept plea bargains, a strategy for securing convictions in cases with weak evidence.
“National polls tell us that Americans across the country have become increasingly uncomfortable with the administration of the death penalty in the United States,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a national non-profit organization that provides analysis and information on issues concerning capital punishment. “This study shows that the misconduct and miscarriages of justices that so frequently occur in capital cases are not limited to cases in which the death penalty is imposed. The types of wrongful capital prosecutions documented in this report can only further undermine public confidence that the death penalty can be administered fairly.”
The 56 cases included in the report represent a conservative estimate of the number of wrongful capital prosecutions during the past 25 years. The state does not track such cases, and researchers did not consider cases in which they could not find adequate information. They also used strict criteria that excluded cases where the defendant was convicted of any lesser offense related to the murder.