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North Carolina needs to rethink the death penalty

Stephen Dear & Diann Rust-Tierney

Recently, law enforcement officers, prosecutors, crime victims’ advocates and both Republican and Democratic state legislators in New Jersey worked together to pass legislation to repeal that state’s death penalty. Gov. Jon Corzine signed the bill into law last month, making New Jersey the first state to legislatively repeal the death penalty since Iowa and West Virginia did so back in 1965.

Despite some significant reforms, death penalty systems in other states, such as North Carolina, remain awash in blunders, racial and class bias and runaway expenses, and are long overdue for systematic reviews by their legislatures.

In New Jersey, a blue ribbon commission was appointed to thoroughly study the pros and cons of the state’s death penalty and to recommend what measures could be taken to fix it. The commission was made up of victims’ rights advocates, prosecutors and other law enforcement representatives, a retired state Supreme Court justice and many others.

The study found the death penalty to be a deeply flawed public policy and, in the words of one state senator who in 1982 voted for reinstating the death penalty, it is a “false and ineffective choice for taxpayers and residents who have lost loved ones. It has for too long been sustained by mythology and fiction, propped up by outdated rhetoric when courage and common sense would have served us better.”

The commission further found that the death penalty squanders millions in tax dollars, does not serve a legitimate purpose such as crime deterrence, delays healing for murder victims’ loved ones and carries no guarantee against the execution of innocent people.

Other states have begun to rethink our nation’s four-century experiment with capital punishment. The record of North Carolina’s death penalty is far worse than New Jersey’s ever was. North Carolina, however, has never had a comprehensive evaluation of its death penalty system commissioned by the Legislature.

How bad do things have to get before our leaders deal with them?

Just this month, North Carolina declined to retry Jonathan Hoffman, a convicted murderer who had been granted a new trial. He was the state’s sixth death row inmate to be exonerated. Hoffman, an African-American, was condemned to die by an all-white jury in Union County for killing a white jewelry store owner, Danny Cook.

No physical evidence linked Hoffman to the crime. Hoffman’s prosecutors, Ken Honeycutt and Scott Brewer, withheld information about deals they made with prosecution witnesses, what the N.C. State Bar has called egregious misconduct.

Honeycutt is known for having awarded his staff lapel pins in the shape of a noose when he won death penalty cases.

Last month, a judge ordered a new trial for another death row prisoner, Glen Chapman, saying in this Catawba County case that police withheld evidence and lost or destroyed documents, that Chapman received ineffective assistance of counsel and that one of the women Chapman is accused of killing was likely not murdered at all.

Executions are on hold in North Carolina while courts decide whether the N.C. Medical Board can ban doctors from participating in executions and whether the Council of State improperly approved the state’s lethal injection protocol. Much more needs to be considered.

Since North Carolina reinstated the death penalty in 1977, more than 15,000 people have been murdered here. Based on past studies, taxpayers appear to have spent on the death penalty tens of millions more than they would have on life imprisonment without parole. For that, 388 people have been sentenced to death here; 180 of them were later removed from death row and 43 people have been executed.

The General Assembly should suspend executions until it can resolve myriad questions.

To begin with: How were six innocent people, who collectively spent more than three decades on death row, sentenced to death in the first place? Are there any more innocents condemned to die and, if so, why? Why are the worst of the worst almost never found on death row? Is justice served by sentencing the severely mentally ill to die? How does our system allow people to be sentenced to death because of their race or the victims’ race? Why does our system repeatedly allow prosecutors to win death cases by breaking laws and acting unethically? How many more millions of dollars are North Carolina taxpayers going to be asked to spend on Old South justice while these problems go unsolved?

In New Jersey, regardless of initial views on capital punishment, a panel of experts and a bipartisan group of lawmakers faced up to these types of questions. The onus is on those who support North Carolina’s death penalty to confront these questions with the same honesty, openness and courage.

Stephen Dear is executive director of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty. Diann Rust-Tierney is the executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

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