Commentary

Another state ends the death penalty and it’s past time for NC to follow suit

Last week, Washington became the 20th state to end the death penalty after its Supreme Court ruled that capital punishment is arbitrary and racially biased. If those are reasons to outlaw the death penalty, then it is surely time for the North Carolina death penalty to go.

How much more proof can you ask for that the death penalty is racist and arbitrary in our state?

More than 63 percent of North Carolina’s death 141 row prisoners are people of color, even though they make up less than 30 percent of the state population. More than two dozen of the people on death row were sentenced to die by all-white juries.

A comprehensive statistical study found that defendants who kill white victims are more likely to get the death penalty, and that across the state, African American citizens are systematically, and illegally, excluded from capital juries.

If that’s not enough, let’s talk about arbitrariness.

A new report from the Center for Death Penalty Litigation shows that most of the people on N.C. death row are only there because they had the bad luck to be tried under outdated laws, before there were basic legal protections to ensure fairness at their trials. Had they been tried under modern laws, most wouldn’t be on death row today.

Watch the story of Nathan Bowie, who because there was no indigent defense agency at the time of his trial, ended up with an alcoholic lawyer who came to court drunk.

Today, after the enactment of many reforms, only a handful of people each year face capital trials. Yet, the selection of that handful remains arbitrary. It has more to do with the practices of the local DA, the county where the crime occurred, and the defendant’s willingness to accept a plea bargain than it does with the severity of the crime.

Across the country, people have become unwilling to ignore the obviousness unfairness that infects the death penalty. Last week, Washington admitted the truth about its death penalty. It’s time for North Carolina to do the same.

Kristin Collins is the Associate Director of Public Information at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation. This post appeared originally on the North Carolina Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty blog.

Commentary

The death penalty poll question they never ask

[Cross-posted from the NC Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty blog]

Last week’s Gallup poll showed us that Americans’ support for the death penalty continues to erode. Fifty-five percent said they are in favor of executing people, the lowest number in 45 years. That’s down from a high of 80 percent in the mid-1990s.

But a more accurate picture would have emerged if the poll had asked the question that truly gauges people’s views on the death penalty: Would you support replacing the death penalty with life in prison, if you were assured that those convicted would never be released? When that question is asked, a clear majority of Americans, in poll after poll, say they are ready to give up the execution chamber.

The question our society should be asking is not: Do you believe that people who commit murders should be punished? The answer to that is obvious. The question that gets to the heart of the matter is: What’s the fairest, most efficient, and most effective way to punish people who commit the worst crimes? When you ask it that way, the death penalty is clearly not the answer.

The death penalty costs far more than life without parole, takes decades to carry out, and carries with it the risk of executing an innocent person. And it does nothing more to protect us from crime than the harsh and irrevocable sentence of life in prison with no possibility of parole.

Recently, police chiefs and prison officials, even some N.C. prosecutors have acknowledged the waste and futility of continuing to pursue the death penalty. For more than a decade, North Carolina has remained among the vast majority of states who no longer execute people. Meanwhile, our state’s murder rate has gone down.

It’s time to stop clinging to a waning and outdated punishment.

Commentary

New SCOTUS ruling sends strong message to North Carolina

Editor’s note: Cross-posted from the NC Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed what North Carolina death row inmates have been saying for years: Race discrimination in jury selection is a serious problem, and states cannot continue to ignore it.

Watch our new video on racial bias in jury selection:

The justices ruled overwhelmingly (Clarence Thomas was the only one to dissent) that the Georgia courts must consider evidence showing that prosecutors purposefully excluded black jurors from a capital case. For decades, the Georgia courts had used technicalities to refuse to even consider the egregious facts the defendant uncovered – and continued to push him toward the execution chamber in spite of clear Constitutional violations.

This wasn’t one of those cases where the evidence was iffy. In Timothy Tyrone Foster’s case, the prosecutor’s private notes showed that he highlighted the names of black jurors, marked them with a letter “B,” and put them first on his list of jurors to strike. The prosecution also ranked the African Americans in case “it comes down to having to pick one of the black jurors.”

It doesn’t get much more blatant than that. But sadly, we have examples just as outrageous in North Carolina – and the courts here have done their best to ignore them.

Here is just a taste of the evidence that the N.C. courts have refused to act on:

  • A prosecutor’s handwritten notes that labeled prospective jurors with terms like “blk wino” and “blk, high drug neighborhood.”
  • A note attached to a black juror’s questionnaire showing he was accepted because he attended a “multiracial” church, rather than a black one, and went to “predominantly white schools.”
  • A training session, sponsored by the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys, where prosecutors were given a cheat sheet of “race-neutral” excuses that they could use to justify their illegal strikes of black jurors.

In North Carolina, unlike in Georgia, we have solid data to back up what those notes imply. A comprehensive statewide study of capital cases from 1990-2010 found that prosecutors removed qualified black jurors from jury pools at more than twice the rate of white jurors.

While the evidence is clear, the courts here — just as in Georgia — have refused to do anything about it. Only four of the more than 100 claims filed under the Racial Justice Act were ever heard in court.

Today, the Supreme Court said it’s time to stop making excuses and to stop ignoring even the most obvious evidence of discrimination. We must give African-Americans the right to serve on capital juries, and we must not carry out death sentences tainted by racial bias.

Cross-posted from the NC Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. Original posting here.