Declining Use of Death Penalty in North Carolina Challenges Wisdom of Retaining Costly Practice

In an opinion piece in the News & Observer, Professor Frank Baumgartner of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, recently wrote that the declining use and high costs of the death penalty in the state put into question the wisdom of retaining the punishment in North Carolina. Baumgartner noted that while murder rates in the state have remained relatively unchanged, the number of capital punishment trials and death sentences have declined sharply. Prosecutors formerly sought the death penalty in 10%-12% of all murders but now seek it in less than 2% of the cases. Juries have likewise moved away from imposing death sentences. In 1996, 57% of all death penalty trials ended with the death penalty, a stark difference from the 8% in 2008.

Baumgartner cited a recent report by Duke University economist Philip Cook that estimated a statewide savings of $11 million annually if North Carolina abolished the death penalty. Baumgartner wrote, "Considering that prosecutors have been requesting death less and less, and that juries have been even more sparing in their willingness to impose it, Cook's estimate takes on additional meaning. If we can save that much money by making such a small change from current practices, why not?"  Read full text below.

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NEW RESOURCES: Bureau of Justice Statistics Releases Capital Punishment, 2008

The Bureau of Justice Statistics released the 2008 version of its annual report on the death penalty in the U.S. in December 2009.  Information drawn from the report includes:

  • The number of people on death row declined from 3,215 in 2007 to 3,207 in 2008.
  • 50% of those on death row had not graduated from high school; only 9% had any college education.
  • 91% of those on death row had no prior homicide conviction.
  • 13.2% of those on death row at the end of 2008 were hispanic.
  • 22% of those on death row were married.
  • 1,122 of those on death row were under the age of 25 at the time of their arrest.
  • The average time between sentencing and execution for all those executed in 2008 was 11.75 years.

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Death Penalty Use in Louisiana Has Sharply Declined

Louisiana has seen a steep decline in executions compared to previous decades, with only three executions in the last ten years. This is in stark contrast to the eight men who were electrocuted within the span of 11 weeks in 1987, and it follows a nationwide trend of declining executions and imposition of death sentences. The state's most recent execution was on January 7, the first since since 2002. The execution occurred only because the defendant, Gerard Bordelon, waived appeals that may have taken many more years to complete.  Although there are concerns in the state over the time between sentencing and execution, many cases are reversed because they were not conducted properly in the first place.  About half of the state's cases considered by federal judges since 2000 have been sent back to the state court for new trials.  First Assistant District Attorney Cynthia Killingsworth of Calcasieu Parish said that her office has sought fewer capital charges over years, partially because of the burden it can put on victims' families when a case is reversed and needs to be retried.

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