(Cross-posted from the North Carolina Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty)
By Kristen Collins
Some of N.C.’s legislators say it’s time to restart executions here, after a nearly eight-year hiatus. Do they know what they’re suggesting? North Carolina has one of the largest death rows in the nation with more than 150 people. Turning the faucet back on could trigger a Texas-style surge in executions. This is the solution at a time when there is a nationwide shortage of execution drugs, leading to disasters like the one in Oklahoma? After the SBI admitted manufacturing evidence in murder trials? After a judge found widespread racial bias in N.C.’s capital punishment system? After the many high-profile exonerations we’ve seen? Maybe these legislators missed all this news. So, here is a primer — eight reasons why the rational and fair-minded citizens of North Carolina are looking for alternatives to the death penalty:
1. Innocent people will die
Maybe you think that, if you don’t kill anyone, you don’t have to worry about the death penalty. You would be wrong. A new study estimates that 1 in 25 people sentenced to death are innocent–and many of them will never be able to prove it. In N.C., seven innocent people have been released from death row. All told, exonerated men have served 50 years on death row here. And those are just the ones we know about. Others will never get a chance to prove their innocence because crucial evidence in their cases has been lost or destroyed. (The evidence of Joseph Sledge’s innocence was stuffed in a locker and lost for three decades before his attorneys finally dug it out.)
2. Killing people is not as easy as it sounds
Just ask Oklahoma. Their attempt at lethal injection had to be aborted, and the condemned man died of a heart attack after 43 minutes of suffering. Lethal injection was supposed to be the clean, humane solution to killing inmates–but it’s getting messier all the time. Drug manufacturers are refusing to sell their drugs for executions. States are resorting to experimental drug combinations and using sources so questionable that they are trying to make the identities of their suppliers “state secrets.” The result: botched executions and lawsuits. Does North Carolina want to join this macabre circus? Or would we prefer to return to older methods? Boiling people to death, maybe?
3. Most of our death row inmates got “old-fashioned justice”
We take it for granted that people on trial for their lives have certain rights. Like the right to see all the evidence in their cases, including evidence that might prove them innocent. Or the right to a decent defense. We also assume that the prosecutor will get to decide which crimes are bad enough to warrant a capital trial, and that life without parole is the alternative to death. But for more than two-thirds of N.C.’s 154 death row inmates, none of these things were true. They were all tried before reforms that we now consider key to a fair trial, at a time when our capital punishment system was operating Wild West-style and sentencing dozens of people each year to execution.
4. The death penalty is a terrible investment
What if I told you I had a program that costs millions each year, and affects an average of maybe two people a year. And then I told you that this program achieved its stated goals about 10 percent of the time. Would you fund it? This is the death penalty in a nutshell. Each capital trial costs about $3 million more than a life-without-parole trial. For these millions, we get between zero and four death sentences a year. And it gets worse: Only about 10 percent of people sentenced to death are actually executed. Is this how we want to spend our tax dollars? Maybe we should pay our school teachers instead.
5. The “worst of the worst” is a myth
We like to believe that the death penalty is reserved for the most heinous crimes, but it’s not true. There are people on death row who weren’t even there when the victim was killed. Whether you receive a death sentence is far less dependent on the details of your crime than on random factors like what county you are prosecuted in. If you kill a person in a rural county with a pro-death penalty prosecutor, you are toast. Kill someone in one of the 80 counties that hasn’t sentenced anyone to death in a decade, and the odds are on your side.
6. We value white lives more
Speaking of ways to avoid the death penalty: Kill a black man and your chance of being executed is slim to none. Only 8 percent of people executed in the modern era have murdered black men — even though black men are 40 percent of murder victims. Killers of white women, on the other hand, are treated far more harshly. 43 percent of executions have been for the killing of white women, even though they make up only 13 percent of murder victims. The only logical conclusion is that we care about some lives more than others.
7. The least culpable pay the highest price
It’s a basic American belief that people who are incapable of understanding their actions shouldn’t be executed. That’s why we have laws protecting people with mental illness and retardation. Yet, those groups may be the largest demographic on N.C.’s death row. It’s up to a jury whether to accept an insanity defense and, most often, they don’t. That’s why Guy LeGrande — who believed Oprah Winfrey was speaking to him through the television and represented himself wearing a Superman t-shirt — is on death row.
8. Our hearts are just not in it anymore
Seven states in the past seven years have abolished the death penalty, and more are working on it. Public support for the death penalty has reached its lowest point in 40 years. Very few states are executing prisoners, and states that kill people–even those that are able to do it without torturing the condemned–are starting to look like wacky outliers (Texas comes to mind). North Carolina hasn’t executed anyone since 2007, and we are no less safe. In fact, the murder rate has gone down — a lot. Do we really want to join the Texas club? Do we want North Carolina to be better known for killing people than for its universities, high-tech jobs and beautiful beaches? (Hint: The answer is no.)