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North Carolina’s death penalty decline

In March, a Mecklenburg County jury found 27-year-old Andre Hampton guilty of murder for beating his 23-month-old son, Elijah, to death. But rather than impose a death sentence on Hampton, the jury chose to send him to prison for life without parole.

Seven years before, Samuel Russell Flippen was executed by lethal injection in Raleigh after being convicted by a Forsyth County jury of murder. Flippen, the last inmate to be executed in North Carolina, beat his 2-year-old stepdaughter to death.

No two criminal cases are identical, of course, but the similarities between these two horrible murders illustrate the inconsistency in sentencing in capital cases – one of several flaws with the death penalty in North Carolina. The differing outcomes in these cases, however, also may indicate a recent and encouraging caution surrounding capital murder cases, even as N.C. lawmakers look to once again rev up executions in our state.

A report this week in the Observer and (Raleigh) News & Observer showed that death sentences are declining in North Carolina and across the country. The state saw only five capital murder cases in 2013, with just one death sentence handed out in a Cumberland County case. In 2000, the state held 57 capital murder trials resulting in 18 death sentences.

Across the U.S., only 39 executions took place this year, down from 98 in 1999. The 79 death sentences handed out nationally were three more than last year but are down 75 percent from the mid-1990s, according to the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center.

While states continue to abolish the death penalty – in 2013, Maryland became the 18th state to do so – N.C. lawmakers are looking to move in the opposite direction. North Carolina has had a defacto moratorium on executions since 2006, thanks to lawsuits challenging the death penalty, but the Republican-led General Assembly is looking to again clear the path from death row to the death chamber.

“For nearly a decade, liberal death penalty opponents have orchestrated legal challenges to impede the law in North Carolina,” Senate Leader Phil Berger said this year. “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

To that end, Republicans repealed the Racial Justice Act, a 2009 law that allowed death row inmates to appeal their sentences based on statistical evidence of jury selection bias. That original law was flawed, allowing defendants to claim discrimination without evidence from their individual trials. But the law had been subsequently improved.

There are still some obstacles remaining before North Carolina begins marching inmates to their deaths again. Litigation over the Racial Justice Act continues, with inmates requesting that cases filed under the RJA continue. There’s also ongoing litigation over the state’s lethal injection procedures, despite the N.C. Department of Public Safety adopting a new single-drug protocol this year.

But the biggest obstacle to a new rush of executions may be the hesitation of prosecutors and jurors. Mecklenburg County district attorney Andrew Murray told the Observer that he considers how time, costs and personnel devoted to capital cases weigh down the court and prison systems. As for jurors, they may be pausing because of high-profile wrongful convictions, including an incredible five death row inmates exonerated in North Carolina since 1999. Or maybe it’s because the public is increasingly aware that the likelihood of receiving a death sentence varies with geography – even within states – and skin color.

The death penalty system, as it exists in North Carolina and elsewhere, is far from an administering of justice. Instead of launching into a new era of executions, lawmakers should take their cue from prosecutors and jurors, and think again.

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