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Death sentences decline in North Carolina

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/25/18/51/1tqhBj.Em.138.jpeg|379
    - Mecklenburg Sheriff’s Department
    Justin Hurd, accused of killing three people – including a teenage girl – in northwest Charlotte in 2008, goes on trial for his life next month in Mecklenburg County
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/25/18/51/1bzBSz.Em.138.jpeg|379
    - Mecklenburg Sheriff’s Department
    Demarcus Ivey
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/25/18/51/v7mBj.Em.138.jpeg|473
    HANDOUT - Courtesy of Mecklenburg County
    Mecklenburg District Attorney Andrew Murray

Justin Hurd is about to join a shrinking fraternity: Early next month in Charlotte, the Ohio man goes on trial for his life.

Hurd is accused of murdering three city residents in 2008. His capital murder trial, scheduled to open Jan. 21, represents a growing anomaly in North Carolina and around the country.

Today, prosecutors rarely ask for the death penalty. When they do, juries are more likely to break with district attorneys and refuse to put the convicted murderers on death row.

In 2013, despite the Republican-led General Assembly adopting laws designed to lift a de facto moratorium on executions in North Carolina, juries across the state sent only one person to die.

Mario Andrette McNeill, 33, found guilty last spring of kidnapping, human trafficking and murdering a 5-year-old Cumberland County girl, was the only defendant in North Carolina during 2013 to be sentenced to death.

His trial in Cumberland County was one of five capital cases tried this year in which a death sentence could have been returned.

Mecklenburg County’s lone death-penalty case in 2013 is a revealing one.

The trial of Andre Hampton took almost six weeks. In the end, a jury convicted Hampton of beating his 23-month-old son to death. (Hampton said the toddler wouldn’t eat his soup.) But the panel opted to put Hampton in prison for the rest of his life, rather than order his execution.

North Carolina’s single death-penalty verdict came amid a broad pattern of decline not only in North Carolina but across the United States.

The Death Penalty Information Center, a private group based in Washington, released its annual report this month that elaborates on the trend.

“The death penalty is becoming an increasingly irrelevant component of the U.S. justice system,” Richard Dieter, executive director of the center, said in a statement. “Yet, taxpayers spend millions every year on a punishment that is used in only a tiny handful of murder cases. The few who are executed are, in most cases, severely mentally ill or people who were sentenced under outdated laws that do not meet modern standards of justice.”

There were 79 death sentences across the nation in 2013 in addition to the one in North Carolina – three more than in 2012, but a steep drop from the peak of 315 in 1994 and 1996.

Over the past decade, North Carolina has averaged fewer than three death sentences a year, a sharp contrast with the 1990s, when more than two dozen people were often sent to death row in a single year.

In 2000, the state held 57 capital trials and juries handed out 18 death sentences. That compares with five trials and one maximum sentence in 2013, the UNC School of Government says.

Thirty-nine executions took place across the country in 2013 compared with 98 in 1999. Though the capital punishment took place in nine states, largely throughout the South, North Carolina was not among them.

‘It’s a difficult decision’

Mecklenburg County has two capital trials on tap for 2014 – Hurd’s and one for Demarcus Ivey, charged with murder and robbery in connection with a 2009 shooting death at a west Charlotte strip club.

The District Attorney’s Office has eight total death penalty cases in the pipeline, says Assistant District Attorney Bill Stetzer, who leads the agency’s homicide team.

District Attorney Andrew Murray says some of the cases now designated for the death penalty may not end up that way. Prosecutors, he says, occasionally have switched to life sentences without parole in exchange for guilty pleas before trial.

Mecklenburg prosecutors consider dozens of first-degree murder cases every year. Murray says he reserves death-penalty status for crimes that “shock the conscience of the community.”

Those might include the killing of a law officer, he says, or when a murder includes “aggravating circumstances” such as rape, robbery, brutality or the criminal background of the suspect.

Ivey, for example, has an extensive criminal background involving charges of kidnapping, robbery and assault.

“It’s a difficult decision every time,” Murray said. “We consider a lot of cases that would appear to meet the basic requirements but that we obviously don’t declare.”

Hurd, for example, is accused of the February 2008 killings of Kevin Ashley Young, Young’s girlfriend Kinshasa Wagstaff and Jasmine Ranae Hines, Wagstaff’s teenage niece.

According to police reports, Young was shot multiple times and his neck cut, Wagstaff was stabbed. Hines, whose body was found along a road in Huntersville, died of gunshots.

Police say Hurd also set fire to the northwest Charlotte home holding Young and Wagstaff’s bodies. He was arrested in a Ohio almost a year later. Four years will have passed before the start of his trial.

A de-facto moratorium

The state had held its de-facto moratorium on executions since 2006, when a series of lawsuits were filed that challenged the fairness and humanity of the state-sponsored executions.

This year, the General Assembly repealed legislation and supported new policies that death-penalty critics contend are designed to get executions started again.

The state has 155 inmates on death row, but most have legal challenges pending in state court that were filed before the repeal of the Racial Justice Act.

The 2009 law, overturned this year, gave all death row inmates and anyone facing a death penalty trial an opportunity to file a racial bias challenge using statistics.

Attorneys representing the death row inmates plan to push forward with the cases already in the system, despite the legislative action this summer. They also have acknowledged plans to challenge any attempts to block those suits.

“When death sentences become as rare as they are now, it’s a clear sign that the people of our state have lost faith in it,” Gretchen M. Engel, executive director of the Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation, said.

Engel said several things have happened to make juries more reluctant to impose a death sentence and prosecutors less likely to ask for capital trials.

In recent years, there have been several high-profile cases of wrongful convictions, which resulted in the state investing more money in its indigent defense services.

Now, when a jury gets a capital case, lawyers provide a fuller picture of a defendant from the start, offering up mental health and other factors that might have played a part in the defendant’s behavior.

Debate about the future

Death penalty critics contend there has been a societal shift that shows eroding support for the death penalty and a growing preference for sentences of life without possibility for parole.

They cite a national Gallup poll released in November showing that public support for the death penalty has reached a 40-year low. A February survey by Public Policy Polling, a left-leaning organization, found that nearly 70 percent of North Carolina residents support ending the death penalty if offenders are required to remain in prison for life, work and pay restitution to victims’ families.

This year, several states considered repealing the death penalty, and Maryland joined the list of 18 that have done away with capital punishment.

State Rep. Paul Stam, a Republican and Apex attorney who pushed for the legislation to start executions again, disagreed that there is waning support for the death penalty in North Carolina and cited polls done by Civitas Institute, a conservative-leaning organization.

Though total support has declined over the past three years, according to Civitas data, the organization’s results show 61 percent have “total support” for the death penalty for those convicted of first-degree murder versus the 33 percent totally opposed.

“An overwhelming majority of North Carolinians support the death penalty for the types of aggravated, premeditated, cold-blooded murder for which it can be imposed,” Stam said. “It is no surprise that during a moratorium few death sentences are imposed.”

Murray, closing out his first term as Mecklenburg’s chief prosecutor, also believes that the death penalty still has a place in North Carolina’s justice decision.

He acknowledges, however, that the time, cost and personnel required for each capital case weigh down the court and prison systems – factors that he must consider when weighing death-penalty decisions.

That said, when he believes cases reach a level of heinousness that merits the ultimate penalty, “I don’t think of the moratorium at all.”

Gordon: 704-358-5095
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