My hope for the New Year is that lawmakers in North Carolina will finally find the courage to abolish the death penalty, a punishment rooted in politics rather than science, and simultaneously get serious about reducing crime.Research in the state, summarized in my report “The Death Penalty in North Carolina: A Summary of the Data and Scientific Studies,” shows that capital punishment is rare, ineffective, expensive, biased and imperfect. The only thing left to do now is acknowledge this and put an end to it.For decades North Carolina was one of the leading death penalty states. We were one of the top 10 states in terms of the number of people we sentenced to death and executed in any given year. And yet our murder rate was also always above the national average.
In the past decade, this all changed as the practice of capital punishment in the state has faced serious challenges. We’ve seen problems with the quality of representation offered to defendants. We’ve discovered that innocent people have been convicted and sentenced to death. And we’ve seen clear evidence of racial bias.The good news is that the state has taken steps to address each of these problems.First, the Office of Indigent Services was created in 2000 to reduce the representation of capital defendants by unqualified and inexperienced defense attorneys. Second, the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission was established in 2006 to investigate and evaluate post-conviction claims of factual innocence. And in 2009, the state passed the Racial Justice Act, which bans racial discrimination in the death penalty and corrects for it by setting aside death sentences in cases where race “is shown to have been a significant factor” in seeking or imposing the death penalty.The General Assembly recently repealed this law, but the governor vetoed the repeal; only a three-fifths vote by legislators will override the veto.The bad news is that all our efforts to correct for the problems of the death penalty in our state amount to what former Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun called “tinkering with the machinery of death.” The result is a freakishly rare system of capital punishment that requires taxpayers to spend tens of millions of dollars to maintain but not actually use.North Carolina courts now hand out only about three death sentences a year, and the state has not executed anyone since August 2006 because of unresolved disputes over the lethal injection process.When Justice Blackmun said he would no longer tinker with the machinery of death in 1994, he added: “For more than 20 years I have endeavored … to develop … rules that would lend more than the mere appearance of fairness to the death penalty endeavor … I feel … obligated simply to concede that the death penalty experiment has failed. It is virtually self-evident to me now that no combination of procedural rules or substantive regulations ever can save the death penalty from its inherent constitutional deficiencies.”Ironically, Blackmun was one of the jurists who dissented in the 1987 case, McCleskey v. Kemp, which rejected the appeal of Warren McCleskey, whose attorneys showed that killers of whites (and especially black killers of whites) were more likely to be sentenced to death in Georgia; this is the reality of capital punishment in North Carolina today.That ruling gave us the impossible-to-prove standard that individuals must be able to show that state officials discriminated against them as individuals in order to overturn a death sentence; this is the standard Republican legislators want to return to by striking down the Racial Justice Act.Whereas it’s too late for Blackmun, it’s not too late for North Carolina. Our own experience over the past decade proves that we can live without the death penalty.As death sentences declined in North Carolina in what was the greatest overall reduction in death sentences in the country in the first decade of the 21st century, the murder rate also fell. In 2000, the state’s murder rate ranked it eighth in the nation; by 2010, the state’s murder rate was the lowest level in our recorded history and was down to 15th in the nation.We now have all the facts.The only thing standing in the way of abolition is a lack of courage. May this be the year we finally do the right thing and kill the death penalty. In its place, let’s get serious about reducing crime by pursuing strategies rooted in science that are proven to work.