For Immediate Release: October 9, 2018
For More Information Contact: Gretchen Engel, 919-682-3983 or firstname.lastname@example.org or Paul Cates, 212-364-5346 or email@example.com
Durham, NC — Approximately three-quarters of the men and women on North Carolina’s death row were tried under obsolete laws, before the enactment of a slew of reforms designed to ensure fairness and prevent wrongful convictions, a new report from the Center for Death Penalty Litigation has found.
North Carolina is home to the sixth largest death row in the nation with 142 prisoners. According to the report, Unequal Justice: How Obsolete Laws and Unfair Trials Created North Carolina’s Outsized Death Row, 73 percent of the state’s death row prisoners were tried before 2001, when the first in a series of significant reforms took effect. Most of those condemned prisoners were sentenced in the 1990s, when starkly different death penalty laws and attitudes drove North Carolina to sentence between 25 and 35 people to death each year — and when harsh sentencing laws were creating a nationwide epidemic of mass incarceration.
The new report comes as North Carolina has just passed its 12th year without an execution and is on track for another year with no new death sentences. Just one person has received a death sentence in the past four years.
“Today, we are living in a different world from when these men and women were sent to death row,” said Gretchen M. Engel, Executive Director at CDPL, a non-profit law firm that represents death row prisoners in North Carolina. “Public support for the death penalty is at a 50-year-low, and North Carolina has stopped executing people. Juries now see life without parole as a harsh and adequate punishment for the worst crimes. The fact is, if these people on death row had been tried under modern laws, most of them would be serving life without parole sentences instead of facing execution.”
The report’s findings show that out of 142 death row prisoners in North Carolina:
- 92% (131) were tried before a 2008 package of reforms intended to prevent false confessions and mistaken eyewitness identifications, which have been leading causes of wrongful convictions across the country. The new laws require interrogations and confessions to be recorded in homicide cases and set strict guidelines for eyewitness line-up procedures.
- 84% (119) were tried before a law granting defendants the right to see all the evidence in the prosecutor’s file — including information that might help reduce their sentence or prove their innocence.
- 73% (104) were sentenced before laws barring the execution of people with intellectual disabilities. Despite a promise of relief for these less culpable defendants, disabled prisoners remain on death row.
- 73% (103) were sentenced before the creation of a statewide indigent defense agency that drastically improved the quality of representation for poor people facing the death penalty, and a law ending an unprecedented requirement that prosecutors pursue the death penalty in every aggravated first-degree murder. Before these changes, prosecutors did not have the ability to seek life sentences in these cases and poor people often received a sub-standard defense.
Many of the reforms came in response to a slew of exonerations both in North Carolina and around the country, which exposed an epidemic of innocent people on death row. Nine death sentenced men have now been exonerated in North Carolina. Most recently, North Carolina’s longest-serving death row inmate, Henry McCollum, proved his innocence with DNA evidence in September 2014.
The reforms outlined in the report were designed to prevent innocent people from being sentenced to death. For example, a reform requiring the recording of interrogations and confessions would have prevented Henry McCollum’s coerced confession, written for him by law enforcement, from being used to secure his conviction.
“Despite many important reforms, our capital punishment system still makes mistakes,” said Barry Scheck, Co-Director and Co-founder of the Innocence Project. “But during the years when most of North Carolina’s death row prisoners were sentenced, the system was absolutely stacked against poor people on trial for their lives. We’re talking about people whose defense attorneys came to court drunk, people who never saw evidence that might have proven their innocence, people who were convicted on the basis of a tainted eyewitness identification that would never be admissible in court today. They never had a chance at justice, and some of them might be innocent.”