Virginia just became the first state in the south to abolish the death penalty, significant because Virginia was the first colony to execute someone in 1608 and second only to Texas in the total number of executions.
Here are five good reasons North Carolina should do the same:
We have unofficially already done away with capital punishment. Our state has the fourth largest number on death row: 137 men and 2 women, however no one has been executed since 2006 and only four have been sentenced to death since 2014. All executions have been on hold since 2013 due to court challenges that the “cocktail” of drugs used for lethal injections amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. The likelihood of future executions is small.
The death penalty is clearly not a deterrent. Between 2018 and 2019 homicides in our state rose 9 percent and rapes increased by 22 percent. Some believe 2020 may have been the most violent in modern history.
There is too much unequal justice. Our flawed justice system doesn’t always get it right, especially regarding race. A comprehensive study found that African Americans are more than twice as likely as whites to be denied the right to serve on capital juries. African Americans make up more than half of our state’s death row prisoners, but fewer than 25 percent of our population. A person’s chance of being sentenced to death increases significantly if the victim is white. In far too many cases those accused in capital cases are poor, mentally ill or people of color, often with court-appointed attorneys and with juries that are not diverse. Since passage of the Racial Justice Act and The Actual Innocence Commission, ten sentenced to death have been exonerated and more than 100 people currently on death row have presented evidence of significant racial bias and have claims currently pending.
There are better and less expensive alternatives. For too many years we would sentence someone to life in prison only to have them paroled, but now juries can sentence someone to life without parole. A 1993 Duke University study found that if carried through to execution, capital cases cost an average of $2.2 million more than non-capital ones. A death penalty trial is four times more expensive than a trial where the maximum punishment could be life without parole. A 2009 study estimated that North Carolina could save at least $11 million per year by abolishing the death penalty.
Moral reasons. Those in favor of capital punishment often quote Biblical scripture calling for “an eye for an eye,” but that passage is often incorrectly interpreted. What scripture is advocating is the assurance that punishment will be neither too lenient nor too severe. We prefer the moral imperative “Thou shalt not kill.” Substituting the life of one by taking another is not justice. Many families of victims say the lengthy trials actually make healing more difficult. It is interesting that the loudest advocates for capital punishment are the same ones most opposed to abortion, a contradictory stance on the value of a life.
There are now 23 states that have abolished the death penalty and three more have moratoriums. Popular opinion is changing. In the mid 1990s Gallup reported 80 percent of those surveyed favored capital punishment for one convicted of murder. Last year the number had dropped to 55 percent in favor and 60 percent favored life without parole.
The evidence is convicting. It is time North Carolina formally called an end to capital punishment.
Tom Campbell is a Hall of Fame North Carolina Broadcaster and columnist who has covered North Carolina public policy issues since 1965.