The death penalty continued its inevitable decline in 2021.
North Carolina marked its second year in a row without a single capital trial. The size of death row shrank slightly, as two more people had their flawed and unjust death sentences overturned by the courts. And the state began its sixteenth year without an execution.
Meanwhile, a jury awarded death row exonerees Henry McCollum and Leon Brown a historic $75 million settlement for their 30-plus years of wrongful imprisonment, arising from false confessions that law enforcement coerced from them when they were teenagers. And many on death row continued to pursue litigation under the state’s Racial Justice Act, which has revealed an epidemic of discrimination in death penalty cases. [Read CDPL’s comprehensive project on the origins of NC’s death penalty, Racist Roots.]
Nationwide, 26 states have now banned capital punishment or imposed an official moratorium on its use. Most notably, in 2021, Virginia became the first southern state to abolish the death penalty. Even among those states with the death penalty on the books, few are actively using it. Death sentences were imposed in just seven states this year, and only five states carried out an execution.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center’s new report, the handful of death sentences and executions this year were mostly concentrated in a few former slave states. And they continued the tradition of targeting the most vulnerable. Ten of the 11 people executed in 2021 had severe mental illness, intellectual disabilities, or experienced childhood trauma.
Two more innocent people were exonerated from America’s death rows this year, bringing the total to 186 since 1973. Unsurprisingly, a new Gallup poll showed that Americans’ support for the death penalty remains at historic lows.
However, the spree of federal executions that concluded in January reminds us that we cannot sit back and wait for the death penalty to quietly fade away. After a 17-year hiatus, the federal government executed 13 people in just a few months. The same could happen in North Carolina, where more than 130 people remain on death row and pending litigation is the only thing stopping their executions.
It’s time for North Carolina to stop holding on to the death penalty, a remnant of slavery that embarrasses our state and undermines efforts to address the roots of injustice or the epidemic of mass incarceration and police violence. It is a punishment that feeds off people’s instincts for violence and retribution, rather than building a safer and more just society. It creates trauma rather than healing.
As Durham capital defense attorney Jay Ferguson writes:
For much of my career, I dreaded the holiday season.
Early October brought numerous cert denials by the US Supreme Court, and the State of North Carolina wasted no time lining up our clients for execution. We spent the holidays standing in the darkness outside Central Prison, protesting this macabre practice of state-sanctioned killing and supporting our exhausted colleagues, who fought valiantly until they got the call that clemency was denied.
Having to tell your client that he is going to be executed is heart-wrenching. We attorneys were escorted to the cramped viewing room, shoulder-to-shoulder with law enforcement, reporters and victims’ family members, so our client could have a small bit of comfort, knowing at least one person present cared for him as he died.
The last 15 years have been markedly different. We can never go back to the way things used to be. I’m too old and tired to stand outside Central Prison at 2 a.m. with candle wax dripping on my shoes.
In 2022, we promise to work every day to place North Carolina among the growing list of states that have formally ended the racist and barbaric death penalty — and ensure that we never again sit by powerlessly while the state commits premeditated murder.