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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.

Commentary

The momentum for abolition continues to build. Yesterday, the legislature of the red state of Nebraska voted overwhelmingly to abolish the death penalty and today, arch-conservative hero George Will told us why it was a good idea:

“The conservative case against capital punishment, which 32 states have, is threefold. First, the power to inflict death cloaks government with a majesty and pretense of infallibility discordant with conservatism. Second, when capital punishment is inflicted, it cannot later be corrected because of new evidence, so a capital punishment regime must be administered with extraordinary competence. It is, however, a government program. Since 1973, more than 140 people sentenced to death have been acquitted of their crimes (sometimes by DNA evidence), had the charges against them dismissed by prosecutors or have been pardoned based on evidence of innocence. For an unsparing immersion in the workings of the governmental machinery of death, read “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson, executive director and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative.

Third, administration of death sentences is so sporadic and protracted that their power to deter is attenuated. And the expensive, because labyrinthine, legal protocols with which the judiciary has enveloped capital punishment are here to stay. Granted, capital punishment could deter: If overdue library books were punishable by death, none would be overdue. But many crimes for which death is reserved, including Tsarnaev’s crime of ideological premeditation, are especially difficult to deter.

Those who favor capital punishment because of its supposed deterrent effect do not favor strengthening that effect by restoring the practice of public executions. There has not been one in America since 1937 (a hanging in Galena, Mo.) because society has decided that state-inflicted deaths, far from being wholesomely didactic spectacles, are coarsening and revolting.

Revulsion is not an argument, but it is evidence of what former chief justice Earl Warren called society’s “evolving standards of decency.” In the essay ‘Reflections on the Guillotine,’ Albert Camus wrote, ‘The man who enjoys his coffee while reading that justice has been done would spit it out at the least detail.’ Capital punishment, say proponents, serves social catharsis. But administering it behind prison walls indicates a healthy squeamishness that should herald abolition.”

Commentary

Today’s edition of the Fitzsimon File does a great job of exposing the downright craziness of the latest proposal to revive the death penalty in North Carolina and, in particular, the notion that we should keep the nature of the “drug cocktail” used to kill people a secret. Here’s Chris:

“States that still execute people can’t figure out how to do it and innocent people continue to be released from death row every year.

Simply making the process a secret to speed it up is not the answer. Henry McCollum is living proof of that.”

Of course, it could be that Chris is thinking too narrowly. Maybe this whole secrecy business is just what the doctor ordered (no pun intended). After all, once they succeed in keeping the secret death sauce contents away from prying public eyes, the obvious next step for death penalty supporters will be to keep the means of death itself a secret.

Yeah, that’s the ticket! Instead of sentencing people to “death by lethal injection,” we can just start sentencing them to “death by whatever handy means are readily available.”

And then, after the public gets used to that, we can simply sentence the condemned to “disappear.” Maybe we could even contract the job out to hyper-efficient private companies to save the taxpayers time, money and hassle. I’ll bet we can find some great offshore vendors to handle the contract.