North Carolina

North Carolina

North Carolina Court to Hear First Challenge under State's Racial Justice Act

Marcus Robinson will be the first North Carolina death row inmate to have a sentencing challenge heard in court based on the state's 2009 Racial Justice Act.  According to the act, a death row inmate who can establish through statistical studies that his sentence was racially discriminatory can seek to have it commuted to life in prison.  Robinson's lawyers plan to argue that he received a death sentence partly because he is black and his victim was white  They plan to cite several North Carolina studies, including one that found that a defendant who killed a white victim was 2.6 times more likely to be sentenced to death than if there were no white victims in the crime.  His lawyers will also cite statistics showing that prosecutors in the state reject minorities for capital juries at twice the rate they reject whites.  In Robinson's case, the prosecutors rejected half the potential jurors who were black but only 15 percent of potential jurors who were other races.  His sentencing jury was comprised of nine whites, one American Indian and two blacks, plus two white alternates. The Racial Justice Act was challenged in the state's prior legislative session, but it was upheld.

Two Cases of Probable Innocence Illustrate Need for Better System of Review

Attorneys for a murder defendant who may be innocent have called for reforms in the system of federal review, and particularly to the "accumulated barriers to habeas corpus review of claims of factual innocence."  Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project, along with attorneys for Dr. Jeffrey R. MacDonald in North Carolina, pointed to the mounting evidence of MacDonald's possible innocence that was dismissed by the federal courts until DNA evidence finally became available:  "MacDonald's various legal teams filed successive habeas petitions over the decades. All of these petitions were denied by the federal district court in North Carolina and by the 4th Circuit, in large measure because each new discovery was viewed, and analyzed, in isolation.... When the DNA test results were finally available, the 4th Circuit, in an abrupt turnaround, derided the piecemeal approach previously taken to one evidentiary discovery after another and instructed the district court this time to review 'the evidence as a whole' and apply 'a fresh analysis.'"

NEW VOICES: Law Enforcement Officials Say Death Penalty Does Not Make Them Safer

A recent article by Terrence P. Dwyer (pictured), retired New York State Police Investigator, and George F. Kain, a police commissioner in Ridgefield, Connecticut, dismissed the notion that the death penalty is needed to protect law enforcement officers. Dwyer and Kain wrote that a majority of police chiefs believe that the death penalty does not deter violent crime and rank the death penalty last in a list of effective tools for fighting crime. "In states like New York, which abolished its death penalty in 2004, or North Carolina, where there has been a de facto moratorium since 2006, the numbers indicate no statistical increase in police officer homicides after the death penalty was repealed or rendered moot through moratorium," the authors wrote.  They also encouraged lawmakers to weigh the substantial costs of the death penalty in their decision-making. They stated, "The Connecticut death penalty costs $4 million annually, according to a 2009 estimate by the General Assembly's non-partisan Office of Fiscal Analysis. While capital cases in Connecticut account for just .06 % of cases in the Public Defender's office, the cost to defend these cases was nearly $3.5 million, over 7 % of the office's entire budget."

STUDIES: New Report Cites Multiple Problems with North Carolina's Death Penalty

According to a comprehensive review of studies on the death penalty by Matthew Robinson, Professor of Government and Justice Studies at Appalachian State University, the death penalty in North Carolina is expensive, racially biased and ineffective.  Prof. Robinson analyzed data from more than 20 death penalty studies and found them to be remarkably consistent in their conclusions.  He said, "In the past six years, three states have abolished the death penalty: Illinois, New Mexico and New Jersey.  They did it for the same reason. They found racial bias, they found it to be costly, they found it to be ineffective and a threat to innocent people."  According to Robinson's review, use of the death penalty in North Carolina has been in decline since 2000.  The state has not had an execution since 2006.  He found no evidence that the death penalty deters crime, noting that the state's murder rate has declined since executions stopped in 2006.  He also found evidence of racial bias in the state's death penalty system.  Nearly 80% of death sentences imposed in North Carolina have been in cases where the victim was white, far higher than the percentage of whites who are generally victims of murder.

STUDIES: North Carolina's Death Penalty is Error-Prone and Rarely Applied

A new study from North Carolina shows that the state’s death penalty is error-prone and rarely implemented. A study of the death penalty from 1977 to 2009 found that two out of three death sentences were overturned on appeal, an error rate of 67%. The study also found that only 20% of death sentences resulted in an execution.  The review of the state's death penalty was made by Matthew Robinson, a professor of Government & Justice Studies at Appalachian State University. He made a series of  conclusions based on his research:

NEW POLL—Only 25% of North Carolina Voters Favor the Death Penalty as Punishment for Murder

According to new polling results, support for capital punishment in North Carolina has fallen dramatically, with only 25% of voters saying they prefer the death penalty for people convicted of first-degree murder. The poll, conducted the last week of January 2019 by Public Policy Polling, found that nearly three quarters of North Carolina voters rejected capital punishment for people convicted of murder, with 35% preferring a combination of life without parole plus a requirement to work and pay restitution; 19% preferring life without parole; 12% favoring a lengthy prison term, plus restitution, with the possibility of parole; and 6% favoring a lengthy prison term, without restitution. When asked whether North Carolina should keep the death penalty or replace it with life without parole, a majority of North Carolina voters (51%) said the state should replace the death penalty, while 44% said the state should keep it. Six percent said they were not sure.

The poll also disclosed that North Carolina voters have serious concerns about the administration of capital punishment in the state. 70% said it was likely that North Carolina has executed an innocent person. 24% said it was unlikely the state had done so. 57% said they believed it is likely that racial bias affects whether a person is sentenced to death and 75% believe defendants should be able to present evidence that racial discrimination affects capital trials. 39% said racial bias was unlikely to have affected sentencing and 18% would deny a defendant the opportunity to present evidence of bias. North Carolina voters also favored efforts to reform the state's death penalty. More than two-thirds (68%) said they favored banning the death penalty for defendants with severe mental illness. 61% favored requiring the courts to reexamine death sentences imposed in North Carolina cases tried before the state enacted a series of reforms designed to protect defendants’ rights, provide more competent representation, and ensure fair trials. Nearly three-quarters of North Carolina’s death row prisoners were sentenced before these reforms.

Wake County, North Carolina Jury Rejects Death Penalty in Ninth Consecutive Case

A Wake County, North Carolina jury has rejected the death penalty for 24-year-old Donovan Jevonte Richardson (pictured) and sentenced him to two life sentences, marking the ninth consecutive Wake County capital trial to result in a life verdict. No jury has imposed the death penalty in the county since 2007. “The reality," said Gretchen Engel, Executive Director of the Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation, is that "it just doesn’t make sense to pursue the death penalty in Wake County. Juries have made it crystal clear that they no longer want to impose death sentences, and these costly protracted trials benefit no one.” The jury voted on January 24 to spare Richardson's life, finding that 11 mitigating circumstances—including his age, lack of premeditation, and mental duress at the time of the crime—outweighed the aggravating factors of burglary and robbery during a 2014 home break-in that ended in the murders of Arthur Lee Brown, 74, and David Eugene McKoy, 66. The jury also found as mitigating circumstances that Richardson's father had abandoned him, refusing to acknowledge that Richardson was his son until after a paternity test; that sentencing Richardson to death could harm his two young sons, aged 3 and 7; and that Richardson’s family had offered assurances that Richardson would have a relationship with his sons while he is imprisoned. Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman characterized the case as "everybody's worst nightmare[,] ... two men who worked hard (and) loved their families (but) were murdered in the sanctity of their home at night." She said, "This was a case that we felt strongly (that) under the law (and) under the facts of the case, it was appropriate to go to a jury on that issue." Engel disagreed. “Donovan Richardson wasn’t the most culpable murderer in Wake County, or even in this case. He was just the one who refused to accept the plea bargain," she said. "That’s why he ended up facing the death penalty. It’s a system that makes no sense. It’s entirely arbitrary and goes against our ideas about justice and a death penalty reserved only for a carefully selected few.” The evidence in the case showed that another man Gregory Crawford, committed at least one of the killings and may have shot both men. He pleaded guilty in May 2016 to charges of first-degree murder, robbery with a dangerous weapon, and burglary and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. A third man, Kevin Britt, was charged with two counts of first-degree murder, robbery with a dangerous weapon and burglary, but was permitted to plead guilty to being an accessory to murder after agreeing to testify against Richardson. He is expected to serve less than two years in prison. A 2013 study by DPIC showed that Wake County had the 50th largest county death row in the United States and was among the 2% of U.S. counties accounting for 56% of all prisoners then on death row in the country. In February 2016, after jurors had returned the sixth consecutive life sentence in Wake County, District Attorney Freeman said it might be time to reassess whether to seek the death penalty in future cases. The county nonetheless has sought the death penalty in at least one capital trial in each of the last three years, a time period in which there have been only ten capital trials in the state's 100 counties and only one death sentence.

LAW REVIEW: North Carolina Lacks Constitutionally-Sufficient Proportionality Review

A law review article by Brooks Emanuel (pictured), a Law Fellow at the Equal Justice Initiative, argues that North Carolina's capital punishment statute violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution because it lacks a meaningful appellate mechanism to prevent the arbitrary and discriminatory application of the death penalty. Citing extensive historical evidence, Emanuel argues that "racial discrimination in North Carolina death sentences was pervasive" in the years leading up to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1972 decision in Furman v. Georgia, which declared existing death penalty statutes unconstitutional. After Furman, North Carolina adopted comparative proportionality review as its primary appellate protection against systemic arbitrariness and discrimination. However, Emanuel says, racially disproportionate capital sentencing continues to be endemic in the state. Examining the North Carolina Supreme Court's proportionality cases, Emanuel argues that the court has failed to provide meaningful proportionality review: "First, the court often does not appear to fulfill its mandate to consider 'similar cases,' instead relying too heavily on the very small group of cases in which death was previously found disproportionate. Second, the review’s lack of transparency is itself unconstitutional in its violation of defendants’ rights to due process." Emanuel argues that evidence from recent Racial Justice Act cases and from its fundamentally flawed proportionality review show that North Carolina has failed to prevent discriminatory sentencing and that systemic arbitrariness and racial disparity persist. Although the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Pulley v. Harris that a state is not constitutionally compelled to provide comparative proportionality review so long as some mechanism exists for meaningful appellate review, Emanuel notes that North Carolina has selected proportionality review to perform that function and it has failed to do so. For those reasons, he concludes, North Carolina's death penalty is unconstitutional.

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