Today is International Death Penalty Abolition Day, which occurs on March 1 to mark the day in 1846 that Michigan abolished its death penalty, thereby becoming the first jurisdiction in the English-speaking world to do away with capital punishment. One hundred sixty three years later, however, capital prosecutions remain common in North Carolina. Even with a de facto temporary moratorium on executions, the Attorney General’s office continues to litigate death penalty cases aggressively at the postconviction level.
With the moratorium’s end now on the horizon, and with legislation introduced last month in the General Assembly that would exempt individuals who suffered from severe mental illness from execution, it’s an apt time to take stock of the case to abolish capital punishment in North Carolina:
First, there are innocent people on North Carolina’s death row. Last year alone, prosecutors dismissed all charges against two death row inmates, Levon Jones and Glenn Chapman, in unrelated cases. Jones spent 15 years on death row; Chapman almost 14.
Second, there is no evidence the death penalty prevents crime. While there have been a number of relatively recent studies deploying gee whiz number crunching methods to argue that capital punishment is an effective deterrent, it is impossible to draw sound conclusions from the available data. In a review of the alleged statistical evidence in favor of the death penalty, Yale Law School Prof. John J. Donohue and Wharton School of Business Prof. Justin Wolfers concluded that
The view that the death penalty deters is still the product of belief, not evidence. The reason for this is simple: over the past half century the U.S. has not experimented enough with capital punishment policy to permit strong conclusions. Even complex econometrics cannot sidestep this basic fact. The data are simply too noisy, and the conclusions from any study are too fragile.
Third, the death penalty is applied inconsistently and disproportionately against people of color. While African Americans make up less than 22 percent of North Carolina’s population, they make up more than 53 percent of the inmates on its death row. Nevertheless, the N.C. Racial Justice Act — which would have allowed death row inmates to challenge their sentences if they could show that race played a role in the prosecutor’s decision to seek the death penalty in their case or in the jury’s decision sentence them to death — died in the State Senate last year.
Fourth, the death penalty is very expensive. A study of capital-eligible murder cases in Maryland released last year by the Urban Institute has been getting attention from budget conscious legislators. The study’s authors found that, on average, cases where the death penalty was not sought cost $1.1 million over the course of the case, cases where the death penalty was sought unsuccessfully cost $1.8 million, and cases where the death penalty was sought successfully cost $3 million.
Fifth, many inmates on North Carolina’s death row were represented at trial by inexperienced attorneys. A 2006 study by the Common Sense Foundation (which, full disclosure, was conducted by yours truly) identified at least 37 death row inmates whose trial counsel lacked the minimum level of experience currently required to represent a defendant in a capital trial. Since the data involved self-reporting by the attorneys themselves, the number of death row inmates who lacked adequately experienced capital defense attorneys is probably much higher.
Sixth, many inmates on North Carolina’s death row suffer from severe mental illnesses. A 2008 study, also by the Common Sense Foundation, reviewed “the documented public record for all 162 of the individuals on North Carolina’s death row and found at least 20 cases that featured diagnoses of at least major psychotic or mood disorders. Many of these cases also feature suicide attempts, childhood abuse histories, and even hospitalization for mental illness.” Of course House Bill 137, which would ban the execution of individuals who suffered from serious mental illness at the time of their crime, would go a long way toward remedying this.
North Carolina will join the enlightened world eventually. The question is whether we’ll take the more expensive, incremental route — through reforms such as the Racial Justice Act or House Bill 137 — or if the sorry state of North Carolina’s budget will give legislators the political cover to end capital punishment once and for all.