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In My Opinion

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In N.C. courts, death means life

By Taylor Batten
Editorial Page Editor
Taylor Batten
Taylor Batten is The Observer's editorial page editor.

A federal judge made an unusual ruling in California this month that should get Americans thinking – and none more than those of us in North Carolina.

U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney ruled that California’s death penalty is unconstitutional – not because the state is executing too many people, but because, essentially, it’s not executing enough.

California has sentenced more than 900 prisoners to death since 1978 but has actually executed only 13 of them. The delays are so long, and the system to determine who lives and who dies is so arbitrary and unpredictable, that it violates the 8th Amendment’s protection from cruel and unusual punishment, Carney said.

The decision, legal experts say, could prompt appeals in other states that have large populations on death row but that rarely if ever execute anyone. In other words, states like North Carolina.

A defendant sentenced to death in North Carolina is extremely unlikely to be executed.

Consider:

• Since North Carolina reinstated the death penalty in 1977, 402 N.C. offenders have been sentenced to death; only 43 have been executed (and 33 of those in an unusually active eight-year period).

• North Carolina has not executed a single prisoner in eight years; 18 people have been sent to death row in that time.

• Nearly as many people sentenced to death died of natural causes while waiting (29) as were executed (43).

• 153 prisoners sit on North Carolina’s death row; 126 of them have been there for more than a decade; 33 have been there for more than 20 years. Wayne Laws, who beat two homeless men to death with a claw hammer in 1984, will mark 29 years on death row next month.

It’s a similar picture across the nation. As the graphic below shows, there are more than 3,000 people on death row in the United States, and only about 40 a year are executed.

Maybe there’s a hint as to why North Carolina and the nation have the arbitrary system we do. States would have to execute a prisoner every single day, seven days a week, for more than eight years to clear out the backlog – and we’d develop a new backlog with those sentenced to death during that time.

A majority of North Carolinians and Americans support capital punishment for first-degree murder (though the numbers are dwindling), and politicians are not eager to get ahead of public opinion. So the system serves their interest well: The public gets the satisfaction of watching juries dole out the ultimate punishment while everyone in the system winks, knowing there’s very little chance the sentence will actually be carried out.

Given the botched executions recently in Arizona, Oklahoma and Ohio, and given the steady trickle of death row inmates who are exonerated, what do you think would happen to support for the death penalty if we actually enforced it every single day?

Some would love it; some would lose their appetite for it. Regardless of whether you want more executions or fewer, Judge Carney is right: Legitimate factors like the nature of the crime, not arbitrary ones, should determine who gets executed when, and decades-long delays eliminate any deterrent effect it might have.

Fewer defendants than ever are being sentenced to death in North Carolina. The few who are, though, will probably face the same fate as those who aren’t: Life in prison.

Reach me at tbatten@charlotteobserver.com; on Twitter @tbatten1.
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