For the third time since 2012, no jury in North Carolina sentenced a convicted murderer to die in 2017, according to the Center for Death Penalty Litigation. There were four cases, in fact, in which prosecutors sought capital punishment, and jurors rejected them all.
As the CDPL notes in a statement: “Only a single person has been sent to N.C. death row in the past three and a half years, and most of the state’s district attorneys are no longer seeking the death penalty. North Carolina has not executed an inmate since 2006 because of ongoing litigation over the state’s lethal injection procedures and racial bias in capital trials.”
This is part of a dramatic national movement away from the death penalty. In 2017, according to a new report from NBC News, only twenty-three people were executed and fewer than forty people were sentenced to death nationwide, the second-lowest numbers in each category since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in the late seventies.
What’s more, public support for the death penalty has reached an all-time low. In an October Gallup poll, just 55 percent of Americans said they supported executing murderers, down from 80 percent in 1994.
North Carolina hasn’t executed anyone since 2006—and it’s very unlikely to do so anytime soon—but there are still 140 men and 3 women on death row. Most of them were sentenced at least fifteen years ago, according to the CDPL, when state laws forced prosecutors to seek the death penalty in almost every first-degree murder case. The death row population is aging, and this year, five inmates died of natural causes.
One other death row inmate, Phillip Davis from Buncombe County, was removed from death row and resentenced to life in prison after a court found that race played an improper role in the selection of the all-white jury that condemned him. In addition, death row inmate Michael Patrick Ryan, who still proclaims his innocence, is awaiting a new trial after a judge ruled that misleading DNA evidence was used against him. In 2014, Henry McCollum was exonerated by DNA evidence after three decades on death row and pardoned by Governor Pat McCrory.
“There are some elected officials in North Carolina who still like to talk about the death penalty for political purposes, but that’s about the only way it’s being used anymore,” CDPL executive director Gretchen M. Engel said in a statement. “The reality is most citizens of North Carolina no longer have any use for the death penalty, not after seeing an innocent man like Henry McCollum spend thirty years there.”
UPDATE: In a letter to Governor Cooper and Josh Stein today, Senate leader Phil Berger urged the Democratic officials to restart the death penalty process, citing the case of four inmates charged with murdering prison officials; the Pasquotank County district attorney has announced that he intends to seek lethal injection.
“We read with interest Governor Cooper’s spokeswoman’s response that, ‘Capital punishment remains the law of the state, and Governor Cooper has a long history of upholding it,’ and Attorney General Stein’s spokeswoman’s response that he plans to ‘uphold the law of North Carolina,’” Berger writes in part. “Respectfully, actions—or rather inactions—speak louder than words. In your capacities as attorneys general, have you taken any serious action to fast-track the legal proceedings to ensure that the victims’ families can see justice served?”
See the entire letter below.