Capital Punishment Update

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Later this week, a group of superior court judges will gather at the School of Government to participate in a course on handling capital cases. In preparation for my role as a facilitator of the course, I have been reading up on death penalty news. Both in North Carolina and nationally, data show clear trends toward fewer capital cases, fewer death sentences, and fewer executions. This post briefly explores those developments and considers whether they are likely to continue.

Fewer capital cases. The Office of Indigent Defense Services released a study of capital cases and costs in late 2015. The study found that the state is proceeding capitally much less often – in only about 12% of potentially capital cases in FY15, down from 28% in FY08.

Fewer death sentences. The Death Penalty Information Center tracks the number of death sentences returned in each state each year. The Center’s North Carolina page is here, and it shows that between 0 and 5 death sentences have been returned each year over the past decade, down from a peak of 30 or so per year in the early 1990s. The IDS study referenced above reports that since 2007, just 2.2% of cases in which the state proceeded capitally resulted in a death verdict.

Fewer executions. In North Carolina, there has not been an execution since 2006 as a result of continued litigation over the state’s method of lethal injection as well as litigation about the effect of the repeal of the Racial Justice Act. Other states have also seen declines in executions. The Washington Post ran an article this weekend reporting that “[c]apital punishment in the United States is slowly and steadily declining, a fact most visible in the plummeting number of death penalties carried out each year. . . In 2016, there were 20 executions nationwide, the lowest annual total in a quarter-century.”

The Post story and others like it convey a sense of inevitability, as if it were foreordained that the death penalty will continue to dwindle until it disappears completely. That’s certainly a possibility, but I don’t see it as guaranteed. Several factors have likely contributed to the decline of capital punishment, including falling crime rates, changing public attitudes about the criminal justice system, more effective defense attorneys, and changes in the law. Some of those factors are likely permanent, but others aren’t. For example, the most recent available FBI data shows that violent crime increased 3.9% from 2014 to 2015. I don’t think it is easy to predict whether interest in the death penalty would increase if murder rates were to rise substantially. So I am in the “wait and see” camp regarding the fate of the death penalty, but I am interested in readers’ thoughts.

I should add that the School of Government is institutionally neutral on the death penalty as a matter of public policy, though of course individual faculty members may have opinions on the issue.

8 comments on “Capital Punishment Update

  1. As a retired police officer who has lost many brothers and sisters in blue to scum who took their lives because of the uniform they wore and the oath they swore I am a devout petitioner for the death penalty for cop killers, and also murderers of innocent children and even for rapists which is not in place just yet but should be! I do not believe I have to pay for these scum to live and breathe for the next 10 years or more of their lives while veterans, good citizens and children live in poverty with no food, medical help or school resources! I have no shame in making my opinion known and will stand toe to toe with anyone who has constructive criticism versus smart ass remark!

  2. as noted by tina the primary purpose of the death penalty is vengeance. I think the primary reason for the drop is that now life in prison really means life. Except for family members and friends who seek vengeance ( and I very well might feel the same if my family member was killed) the whole process for the judge, the jury, the prosecutor, defense lawyers and all involved is excruciating. Prosecutors used to have to seek the death penalty if aggravators were present. NO more. Now, they can offer life in prison. Life in prison used to mean parole eligibility in 20 years. Now it means life. we have had a few innocent people removed from death row which ought to give everyone pause.

  3. I agree with Tina. I believe the break down in the system is the punishment structure. The death penalty should be swift and sure for it to be a more effective deterrent. Sentencing grids should consider more aggravating factors as well. Just because someone is a “first time offender” does not truly mean it is their first offense. Drugs play an integral role in crime and therefore should not go unexcused. If an offender is “high” while committing a crime I believe they made a choice to get high and whatever action they took should have consequences the same as if they were sober when committing the act. Being impaired should not be a defense when the person willingly chose to impair themselves.

  4. I have spent 43 years in law enforcement. That means I remember the “outlaw statutes” in NC which allowed declared “outlaws” to be brought in dead or alive. I also policed when there were four capital crimes, not just first-degree murder. Now, as you point out, there has not been an execution in NC since 2006. My experience tells me that we have gone from pushing the envelop one way to pushing it the other way. I believe the answer falls somewhere in the middle, which means there is a proper place for carrying out the death penalty.

  5. I saw the above post; and I submit that any cop thats kills an unarmed citizen for no reason be given the death penalty and I also submit that any cop thats kills a person’s pet for no reason be given the death penalty.So if Tina would agree with this I would agree with her post!!!! no just kidding I would never agree to the death penalty for anyone. Hey, Tina read the book of Matthew.

  6. Mark me on the side of life.
    Capital punishment, like abortion, ends life legally. Both are wrong.
    I could not pull the switch (inject the needle in NC) and I will not ask someone else to do so.

    Just weeks ago a convicted murderer, murdered again in a NC prison in a planned attack on a female guard. I see that the murderer had little, if anything, to discourage him from killing again. I see that the guard might have been safer if the killer had a reasonable sense of self-serving restraint. That guard, at least, had the choice to quit in order to not be around the killer, but the other inmates have no choice. That’s a hard spot to put people in, but maybe isolation could be used rather than killing the killer? That’s pretty cruel, if safer. I just don’t see crimes that would require capital punishment. As a society, we can better afford to house in prison such killers as to bury them. I can live with the one with less regret.

    Still, our country kills in war every day, ordered by elected presidents. Doctors end the life of a completely innocent fetus on demand of the potential mother, legally, for as little as mere convenience. Mothers? Doctors? Dissonance of thought exists in life that is disturbing to cope with, hurting the mind, twisting the soul.

    Maybe a case can be made that the condemned killer is not an innocent, even has no potential for good in life, and deserves “justice” of not being locked away, but put away?

    Maybe the killer deserves to get what he gave…death?

    Maybe there is an injustice for the killer to live while the victim rots in the soil.

    Maybe the victims families need ‘justice’ or revenge or the “eye for an eye?”

    Yes, maybe the condemned killer can rightly suffer what he has reaped,
    but when I have not suffered the personal loss of a loved one,
    when I am not having to suffer the killer’s presence,
    when I can’t myself take his life with my own hand,
    neither can I ask another to do it, nor condone yet another death,
    then pretend it is either a good thing or a necessary evil.
    I can’t live with supporting the ending of life.
    I’ve lived too long to die with that on my soul.

  7. The death penalty is a poor crime deterrent, expensive to administer, and prone to mistakes. The idea that innocent people could be put to death by mistake ought to be enough for anyone to reject the death penalty, even if they think terrible people deserve terrible punishment

  8. I can certainly agree that there are no easy answers to this issue; however, unsavory characters such as convicted murderers, serial killers, terrorists and spies deserve nothing less than the maximum penalty possible. The death penalty needs to be kept on the books and carried out at both the state and federal judicial levels. For capitol punishment to be abolished would give a green light to evil doers. It would ensure that they can commit whatever vicious felony they decide to carry out and ultimately get away with doing so.

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