When I was a student at NC State, I had the life-altering opportunity to hear from someone who was convicted of capital murder and subsequently exonerated. He spent nine years of his life on death row, but it was discovered someone else had committed the crime. His audience had little in common with him. We were mostly white, affluent and educated and he was black, poor and couldn’t even read. Yet his words and his story shook us all and left us wondering if the justice system we’d been taught to believe in was designed to adequately determine life and death.
Fast forward 30 years and it’s hard to know what the status of capital punishment is these days. While we’re one of the few industrialized nations that still allows executions, we’re clearly conflicted about it. Nationwide, support for the death penalty is at a 50-year low. Drug manufacturers refuse to supply lethal drugs and doctors refuse to administer them. Add to that the awareness of racial inequities and an alarming number of exonerations , and it’s a mess.
North Carolina has the sixth largest death row in the nation, with 142 prisoners waiting to die. According to a report last week by the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, 73 percent of these prisoners were tried before 2001, when the first in a series of state reforms took effect that were designed to ensure fairness and prevent wrongful convictions. These came in response to a slew of exonerations, which suggested our state’s laws were not adequate to protect the innocent. Nine innocent people have now been exonerated after being sentenced to death in North Carolina, all of whom were sentenced using obsolete laws. It’s not unreasonable to believe if those still on death row today had been charged under modern laws and attitudes, some would have been found not guilty and most would have received life without parole, not death, because juries now see life sentences as a sufficiently harsh punishment.
The reforms enacted since 2001 include things like requiring interrogations and confessions to be recorded in homicide cases and setting strict guidelines for suspect line-ups; granting defendants the right to see all the evidence in the prosecutor’s file and ending the requirement that prosecutors pursue the death penalty in every aggravated first-degree murder trial. If you’re like me, it’s hard to imagine that these practices weren’t always part of the law. But they weren’t. And there’s the problem. We have more than 100 people condemned to death who will probably never be executed, who were convicted and sentenced under old laws few still believe to be adequate and fair.
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I’ll admit I’ve always thought the death penalty is barbaric. I used to be in the minority. But public attitudes about the death penalty are vastly different today. In the 1990s, when most of our state’s death row prisoners were tried, public support for the death penalty was peaking and executions frequent. Juries routinely sentenced between 25 and 35 people a year to death. Today, North Carolina just passed its 12th year without an execution. In fact, just one person has received a death sentence in the past four years.
The system today is still far from perfect and plagued by a lack of resources, frequent errors and racial bias. Sometimes it seems it’s better to be rich and guilty than to be poor and innocent. Regardless of guilt or innocence, at the time these prisoners were tried, even the most basic reforms were not in place. So the question has to be asked: Given our current attitudes about executing people, coupled with hindsight and the trial reforms enacted in our state, why are these folks still on death row?