N.C. death row becoming frail, aging

DURHAM — North Carolina juries rejected the death penalty in 2017, refusing to impose death sentences at any of the four trials where prosecutors sought them and making this year the third since 2012 with no new death sentences.

Juries in Wake, Granville and Guilford counties all chose life without parole instead of death this year. At a fourth capital trial in Robeson County, the jury said the defendant was guilty only of second-degree murder and he was sentenced to a term of years.

Only a single person has been sent to N.C. death row in the past three and one-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.

“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,” said Gretchen M. Engel, executive director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham. “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 30 years there.”

McCollum was released in 2014, after DNA testing proved he was innocent of the 1983 crime for which he was sentenced to death. Nationally, four more death row inmates were exonerated in 2017, bringing the total to 160. A Gallup poll released in October found that Americans’ support for the death penalty had reached its lowest point in 45 years.

Also in 2017, more questions of innocence arose in North Carolina. Michael Patrick Ryan, who was sentenced to death in 2010 in Gaston County, is awaiting a new trial after a judge ruled in February that misleading DNA evidence was used against him and prosecution investigators intimidated Ryan’s alibi witnesses. Scant credible evidence remains against Ryan, who has always claimed his innocence.

Phillip Davis from Buncombe County was also removed from death row in February and resentenced to life without parole after the court found that race played an improper role in selecting the all-white jury that sentenced him to death. Davis, who was just a few months past his 18th birthday at the time of the crime, spent 20 years on death row before being resentenced.

North Carolina’s death row also shrunk this year because five inmates died of natural causes. Today, 140 men and three women remain on death row. Almost half, 69 of them, are 50 or older. More than three-quarters of death row inmates were sentenced at least 15 years ago, in an era when North Carolina juries sentenced to death dozens of people a year under less enlightened laws.

At the time, the law forced prosecutors to go after the death penalty in almost every first-degree murder case, even when they believed the circumstances called for mercy or there were questions of innocence. Defendants on trial for their lives did not have basic protections such as qualified attorneys or laws requiring that confessions be recorded.

“If we were to restart executions, we would be putting to death people who were tried decades ago without basic legal protections,” Engel said. “Executions would do nothing to solve the problems of today. We would be better served to choose life imprisonment instead and divert the millions of dollars we spend on the death penalty to law enforcement and corrections officers, who unlike the death penalty, make our society safer.”

The Center for Death Penalty Litigation is a non-profit law firm in Durham, N.C., that represents people on North Carolina’s death row.

No new death sentences in 2017