Commentary

NC public opinion on the death penalty appears to have reached a tipping point

There is powerful new polling data today on the public attitudes of North Carolinians toward the death penalty.

A press release from the good people at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation explains:

New poll shows death penalty supporters now in the minority among N.C. voters
Public concerns grow over racial bias and the execution of innocent people

Durham, NC — North Carolina has long been considered a solidly pro-death penalty state, but a new poll finds that N.C. voters overwhelmingly believe the death penalty is error-prone and racially biased – and a majority believe it should be replaced with alternative punishments.

The poll of 501 voters across the state, conducted last week by Public Policy Polling, comes as a capital trial begins in Wake County. It is the first comprehensive statewide survey of death penalty views in North Carolina.

It reveals that a steep decline in new death sentences – North Carolina juries have sent only a single person to death row since 2014 – is the result of a sea change in public opinion about the death penalty that reaches across political divides. Of those polled, 47 percent voted for Donald Trump and 45 percent for Hillary Clinton.

“I was stunned when I saw these numbers,” said David Weiss, a capital defense attorney at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham. “Seventy percent of people believe an innocent person has likely been executed in North Carolina. Almost 60 percent believe that racial bias affects who is sentenced to death in our state. With these kinds of serious concerns about the death penalty, it’s inconceivable that North Carolina could execute anyone or even continue to sentence people to death.”

The poll found that voters have concerns about the death penalty’s fairness on several fronts:

  • More than 70 percent said defendants should have the right to bring forward evidence of racial discrimination in capital trials and jury selection.
  • 70 percent believe it is likely that an innocent person has been executed in North Carolina.
  • 68 percent said they support the creation of a new law to exempt people with severe mental illness from the death penalty.
  • 61 percent said they believe the courts should reexamine the death sentences of prisoners who were tried before a series of legal reforms were enacted to protect defendants’ rights and ensure fair trials. More than three-quarters of North Carolina’s death row prisoners were sentenced before these reforms.
  • 57 percent said it is likely that racial bias influences who is sentenced to death.

The poll also showed that voters are willing to consider a range of alternatives to the death penalty:

When given a choice between the death penalty and a maximum sentence of life without parole, more than 50 percent of voters said they favor life without parole, while only 44 percent leaned toward keeping the death penalty. The rest were unsure.

  • When offered a larger range of alternatives, including requirements that offenders work and pay restitution to victims’ families, only 25 percent of those polled favored the death penalty.
  • 58 percent said they would prefer to eliminate the death penalty if the millions of dollars spent on it each year were redirected to investigating and prosecuting unsolved rapes and murders.
  • 59 percent said they would support a decision by Gov. Roy Cooper to investigate unfairness in the death penalty and, if necessary, replace it with life without parole.
  • 57 percent said they would support a decision by their local district attorney to stop seeking the death penalty because of concerns about fairness, wrongful convictions, and cost.

North Carolina has not executed anyone since 2006. In the years since, five people who were sentenced to death in North Carolina have been exonerated, more than two dozen others have been removed from death row after the courts found serious errors in their cases, and a statewide study found that black jurors are systematically removed from capital juries, violating defendants’ right to be judged by a fair cross section of the community. Meanwhile, murder rates have declined.

Also, in fall 2018, a new report revealed that more than three quarters of North Carolina’s 140 death row prisoners were sentenced before a series of reforms that are now considered essential to fair trials. Among other things, the reforms ensured qualified capital defense lawyers, allowed defendants access to all evidence in the prosecution’s files, created protocols to prevent false confessions and mistaken identifications, and protected people with serious intellectual disabilities from execution.

Executions are currently barred in North Carolina by court order in a case that challenges the state’s lethal injection procedures. However, that case is on hold while the courts address other systemic questions of fairness in the state’s capital punishment system. First among those are cases filed under the state’s Racial Justice Act, which uncovered evidence of statewide race discrimination in capital cases. Those cases are currently before the N.C. Supreme Court and are expected to be argued later this year.

“The capital punishment system has so many problems that the public has lost faith in it,” said Weiss, who is among several attorneys spearheading statewide litigation about racial bias and the lethal injection process. “And after 12 years without executions, North Carolinians have seen that we can maintain public safety without the death penalty. When there is this level of mistrust in the system, we can no longer have a death penalty in North Carolina.”

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