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In case you missed it in the holiday hubbub, be sure to check out the fine Progressive Voices essay that death penalty lawyer Ken Rose authored for NC Policy Watch last month: “New data from 2015: Death penalty increasingly a part of NC’s history, not its future.” As Rose pointed out, one of the happiest developments of 2015 is that the death penalty is clearly on the way out:

“People on all sides are realizing that capital punishment is wasteful and ineffective. In the past few months, a former death penalty prosecutor who sent five people to death row and a Republican state legislator have taken public stands against the death penalty.

North Carolina is in step with the nation. We are now among a majority of states that have abandoned the death penalty, either in law or in practice. Across the United States, new death sentences and executions reached historic lows this year. Just six states carried out executions, and many were horribly botched. Even Texas sentenced only two people to death in 2015.”

Rose’s on-the-money observations have been bolstered in recent days as two of the state’s major newspapers have editorialized in favor of abolition.

On January 2, an editorial in the Fayetteville Observer put it this way:

“The current moratorium is the result of problems finding physicians to supervise executions and the reluctance of drug companies to provide the lethal cocktails that are injected. Some state lawmakers have introduced legislation to sidestep those concerns, but they’re having a hard time evading the Constitution’s prohibition of ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’ It’s a legal morass that even death-penalty proponents call a ‘Gordian knot.’ Unraveling it has been an elusive quest and we don’t see any solutions on a near horizon.

Better, we think, to just walk away from it. An execution may be satisfying revenge, but it’s no deterrent. Lifelong incarceration in one of our godforsaken prisons is more effective punishment – and also cheaper and reversible in case of error.

Since we’re on that course anyway, let’s stick to it.”

And this is the conclusion from an editorial in yesterday’s Wilmington Star News:

“In executing our own citizens, we align ourselves with such human rights violators as Iran, Saudi Arabia and China. Russia and most African nations do not have capital punishment.

Polls show that a majority of Americans still support the death penalty, but when offered a choice between death and life without parole, support decreases.

It is time for North Carolina to get out of the business of executing people.”

In short, it looks like the page on this vexing issue may finally be turning and for this we should all be thankful. As the horrific mass executions in Saudi Arabia this week remind us, our state and nation cannot get on the right side of this issue fast enough.

Commentary

[This post originally appeared on the blog of the NC Center for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.]

N.C. prosecutor who sent five to death row: It’s time to end death penalty

By Kristin Collins

Twenty five years ago, as an assistant district attorney in Forsyth County, Vince Rabil helped put Blanche Taylor Moore on death row. Today, Rabil says it is time to end the death penalty and calls Moore — a frail 82-year-old still sitting on death row — “a living monument to the failure of a vanishing legal remedy.”

In an op-ed published Sunday, Rabil repudiates a punishment that he spent nearly two decades of his career fighting to uphold. In the 1990s, he prosecuted a dozen people for the death penalty and put at least five on death row. Four remain there today.

Rabil believed so strongly in the death penalty that, in 1997, he became the first prosecutor in the country to seek death for a drunk driver. “This will seriously make everyone stop after the first drink or the second one,” he said at the time.

Now, Rabil says the death penalty is a broken system that costs taxpayers dearly, threatens innocent defendants, and does little to comfort the grieving families of victims. He says life with no possibility of parole is a more appropriate replacement.

Rabil’s transformation reveals how much our state has evolved since the 1990s, when a blind faith in the capital punishment system allowed us to sentence dozens of people a year to die. This year, N.C. juries didn’t hand down a single death sentence, executions remained on hold for a ninth year, and public opposition to the death penalty reached its highest point since the 1970s. In North Carolina, even a Republican legislator came out against capital punishment.

At the same time, Rabil’s courageous stance against the death penalty marks a turning point in North Carolina. While many prosecutors, current and former, no doubt have serious concerns about the death penalty, Rabil is the first in our state to take such a public stand.

We applaud Rabil for speaking the truth that so many others are afraid to admit.

Commentary

In case you missed it, the lead editorial in this morning’s edition of Raleigh’s News & Observer does a fine job of summarizing the new and disturbing report from the good people at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation: “On Trial for Their Lives: The Hidden Costs of Wrongful Capital prosecutions in North Carolina.”

As the editorial notes:

“District attorneys who choose to bring capital charges often do so as an expression of the public’s outrage over a heinous crime. But a new report suggests that putting a defendant on trial for his life also can involve another sort of outrage – the pursuit of flimsy cases at high cost to taxpayers and great damage to the accused.

The report from the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in North Carolina looked at problems with death penalty cases from an unusual perspective. Instead of focusing on defendants who were wrongly convicted, the center studied 56 North Carolina capital cases brought between 1989 and 2015 that ended with an acquittal or dismissal of all charges

The finding of 56 cases is a remarkably high number over the past quarter-century given that the state’s death row population is 148. Presumably, prosecutors would not pursue costly, extended death penalty cases unless there was a high probability of a conviction. But the report found shoddy cases derailed by serious errors or misconduct, including witness coercion, evidence not properly disclosed and bungled investigations.”

The editorial concludes this way:

“In North Carolina, there have been no executions since 2006 because of concerns about the drugs used and the refusal of doctors to participate in a process that by law requires a doctor’s presence. Some in the North Carolina General Assembly are trying to streamline the path to execution by proposing a change that would allow medical personnel other than doctors to fulfill the required medical role.

This report adds another chapter to the evidence that the death penalty and the pursuit of it can border on being crimes in themselves. The record demands that the wrongs wrought by this pursuit of vengeance be ended by the pursuit of justice.”

NC Policy Watch will host a Crucial Conversation luncheon today at noon with the authors of the report. We’ll post the video of the event in the very near future.

Commentary

Some seats still remain for tomorrow’s Crucial Conversation luncheon:

Is the death penalty broken beyond repair in North Carolina?

Click here to register

NCPW-CC-2015-6-25-gretchen-engelNCPW-CC-2015-6-25-ken-roseNCPW-CC-2015-6-25-kristin-collins

Featuring Gretchen Engel, Ken Rose and Kristin Collins of the North Carolina Center for Death Penalty Litigation

The recent pardons belatedly granted by Governor Pat McCrory to Henry McCollum (who sat unjustly on North Carolina’s death row for 30 years) and his half-brother Leon Brown (who had been sentenced to life in prison) have served to draw attention once more to North Carolina’s flawed criminal justice system and, in particular, the question of whether the death penalty can ever be fairly applied.

Today, in fact, two-thirds of North Carolina’s 149 death row inmates were sentenced more than 15 years ago, before key reforms vastly reduced the number of death sentences imposed in North Carolina. Many, like McCollum and Brown, were tried before DNA testing was widely used, and before laws requiring confessions to be videotaped and allowing defendants access to all of the state’s evidence in their cases.

Now, a soon-to-be-released report from experts at North Carolina’s nationally recognized Center for Death Penalty Litigation (CDPL) promises to raise even more questions about wrongful capital prosecutions, their financial and human costs and the very legitimacy of our criminal justice system.

Please join us for this very special NC Policy Watch Crucial Conversation with the report authors – CDPL Executive Director Gretchen Engel, Senior Staff Attorney Ken Rose and Associate Director of Public Information Kristin Collins.

When: Thursday, June 25, at noon — Box lunches will be available at 11:45 a.m.

Where: Center for Community Leadership Training Room at the Junior League of Raleigh Building, 711 Hillsborough St. (At the corner of Hillsborough and St. Mary’s streets)

Click here for parking info.

Space is limited – preregistration required.

Cost: $10, admission includes a box lunch.

Click here to register

Questions?? Contact Rob Schofield at 919-861-2065 or rob@ncpolicywatch.com

Commentary

090309-1854-memotodeath1.jpgThe global and national trend is unmistakable and, let’s hope, irresistible: the death penalty is on the way out and increasingly confined to authoritarian/theocratic states and lawless regions controlled by criminal bands.

In case you missed it, yesterday’s lead editorial in Raleigh’s News & Observer rightfully lauds Nebraska’s courageous repeal vote from last week and urges North Carolina to get on board with this encouraging and fast-growing bandwagon. Here’s the excellent conclusion to the N&O essay:

“The death penalty also smacks of revenge punishment, something to give satisfaction to the family and friends of a murder victim. That’s not what the court system is about. It is about justice, not revenge.

And to argue, as many politicians have over many decades, that the death penalty is important because it is a deterrent to crime is simply disingenuous. It’s political convenience, because there’s little evidence to show a connection between the establishment of the death penalty and a decrease in crime. States without the death penalty have lower murder rates than those with it.

Sadly, North Carolina’s Republicans continue to lead the state away from enlightened thought on the issue. Legislators now are moving to restart stalled executions in the state by eliminating the requirement that a doctor be present.

North Carolina’s People of Faith Against the Death Penalty offered a good summation here: “It is no longer conservative to support the death penalty – it’s just outdated. The legislators in Nebraska voted their consciences. They voted their values. They value life and creation and justice for all and recognize that the death penalty is, in fact, contrary to these values.”

It has been more than 40 years since a state acted to abolish the death penalty. Let us hope Nebraska’s action will be followed by other states sooner than that.”

Also, be sure to check out this op-ed from Fridays’ Asheville Citizen-Times in which a contributor explains his own evolving views on the death penalty.