When Jerry Cummings died last week at age 76, he became the ninth death row inmate in North Carolina to die of natural causes since 2006, when the state’s last execution took place. And he won’t be the last.
With executions essentially on hold in North Carolina, the state’s death row population is aging. Of the 152 inmates on death row, 66 are age 50 or older. The oldest, Blanche Moore, who was convicted in Forsyth County in 1990 of murdering her longtime boyfriend with arsenic, is 83.
The prison population overall is getting older. At the end of 2015, there were 1,963 prisoners age 60 or older, more than three times as many as in 2005, according to the state Division of Prisons. Nearly 1 in 5 of the state’s 37,000 prisoners is now age 50 or older.
The graying of the prison population is a long-standing national trend. In 2006, the state commissioned a study to document its aging prison population and to help plan for it. The study noted that longer prison sentences combined with the overall aging of the U.S. population had made the elderly the fastest-growing portion of prison inmates.
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The report also noted that the National Institute of Corrections defines elderly inmates as those age 50 or older, because as a group they show the effects of drug and alcohol abuse and poor health care.
Our medical staff would tell you that many of the inmates who come to prison have generally had poorer access to health care throughout their lives and on average they present with conditions consistent with being about a decade older than their actual age.
Keith Acree, state prisons spokesman
“Our medical staff would tell you that many of the inmates who come to prison have generally had poorer access to health care throughout their lives and on average they present with conditions consistent with being about a decade older than their actual age,” said state prisons spokesman Keith Acree. “In other words, people 60 years old in prison present with medical conditions more like the average 70-year-old in the community.”
The state has not executed anyone since Samuel R. Flippen was killed by lethal injection in August 2006 for first-degree murder in Forsyth County. Since Flippen’s death, a series of lawsuits filed in state courts questioning the fairness and humanity of capital punishment have created a de facto moratorium on executions.
At the same time, courts are sentencing fewer people to death in North Carolina, mirroring a national trend away from capital punishment. Of the 152 people on death row, 18 were sentenced since Flippen’s execution a decade ago; 98 of them were sentenced in the 1990s.
As a result, death row skews older than the rest of the prison population, with an average age of 48 compared with 37 overall.
Most people leave death row alive, usually because their death sentences have been vacated and they were resentenced to life in prison. One death row inmate, Henry McCollum, was declared innocent by a judge and freed in 2014 when DNA evidence implicated another man in the 1983 rape and murder of an 11-year-old Robeson County girl.
Cummings, who died last week, was sentenced to death twice for the murder of Jesse Ward in Robeson County. He was first sentenced in 1987. That was later overturned, but not the conviction, and another jury sentenced him to death a second time in 1997.