Although North Carolina hasn’t carried out an execution since 2006, more than 140 men and women remain on death row—and more than three-quarters of them were sentenced under penalty guidelines that have long since been abandoned in favor of reforms that de-emphasize capital punishment, according to an investigation by the Center for Death Penalty Litigation.
“North Carolina has the sixth largest death row in the nation,” said the Center’s report. “It is a relic of another era.”
The report, entitled “Unequal Justice,” found that 92 percent, or 131, of the current death row inmates were tried before a 2008 package of reforms intended to prevent false confessions and mistaken eyewitness identifications. The new laws require interrogations and confessions to be recorded in homicide cases and set strict guidelines for eyewitness line-up procedures.
Moreover, 84 percent (119 inmates) were tried before a law granting defendants the right to see all the evidence in the prosecutor’s file — including information that might help reduce their sentence or prove their innocence.
The sentences were a consequence of the “tough-on-crime” era of the 1980s, when harsh punishments were celebrated as deterrents to crime. In one example cited by the study, a North Carolina prosecutor marked new death sentences by handing out noose lapel pins to his assistant prosecutors.
Juries have recommended only a single new death sentence in the past four years, said the Center, a non-profit law firm that provides direct representation to inmates on North Carolina’s death row and advocates against the death penalty.
“Today, we are living in a different world from when these men and women were sent to death row, said Gretchen M. Engel, executive director of the Center. “Public support for the death penalty is at a 50-year-low.
“Juries now see life without parole as a harsh and adequate punishment for the worst crimes. The fact is, if these people on death row had been tried under modern laws, most of them would be serving life without parole sentences instead of facing execution.”
A Gallup Poll in 2017 found 55 per cent of U.S. adults in favor of the death penalty, the lowest support seen in 45 years.
A full version of the report and a video are available here.