North Carolina will finish the year with just one defendant sentenced to death, a record low since the penalty was reinstated 31 years ago, the Raleigh News & Observer reports. The single capital murder conviction continues a downward trend fueled by better defense lawyers and new laws that exclude the mentally challenged and make prosecution evidence more accessible. More people on death row have been exonerated this year in the state — two — than were sentenced to death. A de facto death penalty moratorium as the courts, state officials, and the medical profession debate the ethics of lethal injections has prevented anyone from being executed for two years.
In 1996, North Carolina had 60 capital trials resulting in 34 death sentences. The decline in death sentences is a national trend, but North Carolina’s is among the most pronounced, says the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C. Tom Horner, president of the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys, said the de facto moratorium might be influencing prosecutors’ decisions to seek life without parole instead of the death penalty. Capital cases are much more expensive and time consuming because defendants are entitled to services that include more expert witnesses and test juries.