Commentary, News

Is this the best public policy news from 2018?

Admittedly, the competition in the national and state “good policy news” contests have been pretty weak over the last 12 months, but here is one very good bit of news that deserves to be celebrated: the death penalty in North Carolina continues to fade away before our eyes.

The following is from the good people over at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation:

New death sentences in North Carolina reached historic lows in 2018
With executions still on hold, N.C.’s large death row is last remnant of a fading death penalty

Durham, NC — In 2018, for the second year in a row, juries imposed no new death sentences in North Carolina. This marks the third year of the past four without any death sentences, and the first time in the state’s modern history that juries have rejected the death penalty for two consecutive years.

There were just three capital trials in North Carolina this year, one each in Wake, Lee, and Scotland counties. All three juries chose life without parole instead of death sentences.

The state has not executed anyone since 2006.

“The death penalty in North Carolina has become a relic,” said Gretchen Engel, executive director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation and a defense attorney for death row prisoners. “Very few district attorneys seek death anymore and, when they do, juries reject it. The people of our state are speaking very clearly. We no longer need the death penalty to keep North Carolina safe.”

National trends away from the death penalty also continued in 2018. Washington became the 20th state to abolish capital punishment. A Gallup poll showed that, for the first time, a majority of Americans believe the death penalty is applied unfairly. Only eight states executed people, and numbers of death sentences and executions remained near all-time lows. At the same time, estimates showed that the U.S. murder rate was on track for its biggest decline in five years, providing more evidence that there is no connection between crime deterrence and the death penalty.

As the tide turns, Wake County remains an outlier in continuing to seek death sentences. It is the only county in North Carolina that has sought the death penalty at trial every year for the past three years. It is also the only county with two capital trials already on the calendar for early 2019. Since the beginning of 2016, there have been 12 capital trials across North Carolina, and a quarter of them were in Wake County. No other county has had more than one, and 90 percent of counties had no capital trials during those years.

Wake continues to seek death sentences even though the county’s juries have rejected the death penalty in favor of life without parole at nine capital trials in a row — and have not imposed a death sentence for more than a decade.

Continuing capital trials come at a high cost. Defense costs alone in death penalty trials, which are paid by taxpayers, average four times more than in non-capital trials. According to N.C. Indigent Defense Services, defense costs in Wake’s past nine capital trials have averaged nearly $350,000 per case. State taxpayers might have saved nearly $2.4 million if the cases had been tried non-capitally. These estimates do not include added costs for prosecutors, judges, and courts involved in in capital trials, which are longer and more complex.

“Our state is throwing away taxpayer money away every time there’s a capital trial,” Engel said. “We spend four times as much to end up with the same result we could have gotten with a non-capital trial, a sentence of life without parole. We should respect what our juries are telling us and stop death penalty prosecutions.”

Even though no one has been sent to death row since 2016, North Carolina continues to house the sixth largest death row in the nation with 140 prisoners. The vast majority were tried in the 1990s, before a series of reforms that transformed the death penalty by, among other things, providing an adequate defense to poor defendants, ensuring that people facing the death penalty could examine all the evidence against them, and setting protocols for police lineups and confessions to prevent suspects from being wrongly convicted. The problems with outdated death sentences were detailed in CDPL’s 2018 report, Unequal Justice: How Obsolete Laws and Unfair Trials Created North Carolina’s Outsized Death Row.

Two people were removed from death row this year because of evidence of mental incapacity that was not revealed during their trials. James Morgan is now serving life without parole, and Juan Rodriguez will get a sentencing hearing. One person, Rowland Hedgepeth, died of natural causes.

Also this year, the N.C. Supreme Court agreed to review the cases of four prisoners who presented overwhelming evidence of race discrimination across the state and in their own cases. The court is expected to hold oral arguments in 2019.

The Center for Death Penalty Litigation is a non-profit law firm that represents people on death row and educates the public about the North Carolina death penalty. It is based in Durham, N.C.

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