Today in North Carolina

Death penalty losing favor?

January 3, 2014 

— Death-penalty opponents in North Carolina, citing a national report, recently noted a continuing decline in U.S.executions.

The report, from the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center, showed a 10-percent decline in executions in 2013.

North Carolina has been a part of that national trend, with no one executed here since 2006.

Opponents of the death penalty say the drop reflects declining public support for the death penalty.

In North Carolina, though, executions have stopped primarily because of court challenges, and not – as in some other states – because of legislative decisions reflecting public sentiment to abolish the death penalty.

The Republican-controlled legislature and the administration of Gov. Pat McCrory, meanwhile, have been taking steps to resume executions in North Carolina.

Legislators largely repealed a law called the Racial Justice Act, which allowed those sentenced to death to use statistics in racial-bias claims to challenge their sentences.

They also established the state Department of Public Safety as the sole authority to determine drug protocols for lethal injection, an issue that has been the focus of legal challenges halting executions.

In October, department Secretary Frank Perry signed an order approving a new protocol, a move that could eventually clear the way for executions to resume.

Legislative leaders would like to see that happen.

Earlier this year, in response to the repeal of the Racial Justice Act, Senate leader Phil Berger said: “For nearly a decade, liberal death-penalty opponents have orchestrated legal challenges to impede the law in North Carolina. Justice delayed in justice denied.”

Death-penalty opponents don’t see the state taking a life as justice. They see it as immoral, and they see a justice system that allows it and has wrongly convicted people of murder as flawed.

Death-penalty supporters argue that the death penalty deters murder and violent crime. In the most heinous cases, the argument is sometimes made that the perpetrator essentially forfeits his or her humanness.

The gulf between those two views is pretty wide.

But in some ways, it has been bridged by laws passed in this state a decade or so ago that provided prosecutors with more discretion in seeking the death penalty and stopped the execution of the mentally retarded.

Before the passage of those laws, the arbitrary nature of the death penalty in North Carolina was obvious to anyone who would open his eyes.

Sentencing to death a 19-year-old who had broken into a business and bludgeoned a security guard with a heavy object found in the business, while allowing someone who premeditated multiple murders to escape a death sentence, is all anyone needs to see to understand that capriciousness.

With the changes in place, the state has averaged less than three death sentences a year, compared to more than two dozen in the 1990s.

Whether excecutions in North Carolina ever resume, everyone should agree that we never need a return to a 1990s-style death penalty, where blind justice became injustice.

Scott Mooneyham writes about state government and politics.

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