For Immediate Release: December 21, 2016
For More Information Contact: Gretchen Engel, 919-956-9545 or Kristin Collins, 919-791-7976
State houses nation’s 6th largest death row, despite no executions and few new death sentences
Durham, NC — In 2016, North Carolina passed the decade mark without an execution, tried just five people capitally in all 100 counties, and of those five, sent only one person to death row. As another year ends, North Carolina continues to reflect national trends, which clearly show the death penalty on the decline.
Across the country, new death sentences in 2016 were at their lowest point in the modern era of the death penalty, which began in 1972. Only 20 people were executed in the U.S. this year, the fewest in 25 years. And a September poll from the Pew Research Center showed that in 2016, for the first time in four decades, a majority of Americans no longer support the death penalty. (More national statistics at DeathPenaltyInfo.org.)
“Look at Wake County, which used to send people to death row almost every year, but hasn’t had a new death sentence in almost a decade. This year, in the sixth case in a row, a Wake County jury chose a sentence of life without parole over the death penalty,” said Gretchen M. Engel, executive director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation. “Society’s beliefs have shifted, and in the overwhelming majority of cases, people no longer think it’s appropriate.”
Over the past five years, an average of fewer than two people per year have been sent to death row in North Carolina, compared with 20 to 30 people per year in the 1990s. There were no new death sentences in 2012 and 2015. Yet, despite the death penalty’s fade, North Carolina continues to cling to one relic of the death penalty’s past.
With 150 men and women awaiting execution, North Carolina has the sixth largest death row in the nation. Three-quarters of N.C. death row inmates were convicted and sentenced at least 15 years ago, at a time when laws governing the death penalty were starkly different.
North Carolina now must maintain a death row where people live for decades. Two inmates died of natural causes this year, bringing the total to six in past five years. Almost half of N.C.’s death row inmates are now 50 or older, and 21 are 60 or older.
“Our death row is becoming a costly warehouse for the elderly,” Engel said. “And most of these people, if they had been tried under today’s laws, would never have been sentenced to death in the first place.”
In 2014, the exoneration of Henry McCollum, N.C.’s longest serving death row inmate showed just how unreliable decades-old convictions can be. Both McCollum and his brother, Leon Brown, were sentenced to death in 1983 based on false confessions that were written for them by law enforcement. McCollum and Brown did not benefit from modern laws designed to prevent false confessions, which now require all murder interrogations and confessions to be recorded.
One hundred twelve of North Carolina’s death row inmates were tried during an era when North Carolina was the only state in the nation that forced prosecutors to seek death sentences in every case of first-degree murder with an aggravating factor, regardless of other factors that might have called for mercy. Prosecutors could not agree to a sentence other than death even if, for example, the defendant played a minor role in the crime or was seriously mentally ill. This requirement led to unprecedented numbers of capital prosecutions and gave North Carolina one of the highest death sentencing rates in the nation during the 1990s. As soon as the requirement was dropped in 2001, death sentences plummeted.
The majority of death row inmates did not have the benefit of key reforms including the creation of a state agency to oversee indigent defense; a law granting defendants access to all the evidence in the prosecutor’s file, including evidence pointing to innocence; a bar on the execution of people with intellectual disabilities; and new strict guidelines for suspect lineups designed to prevent mistaken eyewitness identification.
In light of the unfairness in the system, even the staunchest defenders of the death penalty are now beginning to rethink their support for the punishment. As the former Republican Chief Justice of the N.C. Supreme Court, I. Beverly Lake, Jr. voted to affirm 185 death sentences, and 120 of those people remain on death row today. This May, he said he now believes the death penalty is unfair and unconstitutional.
Lake wrote in an op ed: “After spending years trying to instill confidence in the criminal justice system, I’ve come to realize that there are certain adverse economic conditions that have made the system fundamentally unfair for some defendants.”