North Carolina Decline in Death Verdicts Highlights Penalty's Cost, Ineffectiveness
Death sentences are sharply down in North Carolina and the combination of cost concerns and more effective representation have made them progressively rare. In an interview with The Hickory Daily Record, David Learner, District Attorney for the 25th prosecutorial district encompassing Catawba, Caldwell, and Burke counties, who has personally tried two death-eligible cases, says “It’s extraordinarily difficult to get a death verdict. ... [Y]ou come to realize it’s very difficult for a jury seated in that box to say ‘yes, you need to kill that man.'” Murder cases in which the death penalty may be sought are defended by five regional capital defender offices, which have a record of effectively investigating cases and negotiating non-capital outcomes. According to statistics maintained by the North Carolina Office of Indigent Defense Services (NCIDS), from 2007 to 2015, nearly 60% of capital prosecutions ended with non-capital convictions for second-degree murder or less, and only 2.2 percent of all capital cases in the state resulted in death sentences. In Wake County, juries have returned life verdicts in eight consecutive capital sentencing trials. When a case is charged, Assistant Capital Defender Victoria James told the paper, "you know what happened, but you don’t know why it happened.... And that’s where you get into the client’s mental health, provocation, and many times, those are the kind of cases you hope to be able to resolve without going to trial.” With representation by the regional capital defenders, there have been only 5 death sentences in the state over the past five years, down from 140 death sentences imposed 20 years ago in the five years spanning 1992-1996. No one has been executed in the state since 2006 and most of the 262 prisoners who the North Carolina Department of Public Safety (NCDPS) says have been removed from death row have been resentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole after their convictions or death sentences were overturned. Although 98% of North Carolina cases that start out as capital do not end up with a death sentence, pursuing the death penalty has had significant financial consequences. NCIDS reports that, in fiscal years 2007 to 2015, the average costs were 4.4 times higher in a capital case ($93,231 per case) than when prosecutors did not pursue the death penalty ($21,022 per case). A Duke University study in 2009 concluded that repeal of the death penalty would have produced approximately $10.8 million in annual savings from reduced expenditures on murder cases. Between 2008 and 2013, the percentage of cases in which prosecutors have sought the death penalty has fallen from 28.1% to 11%, and budget cuts to the North Carolina Attorney General's office have shifted to local district attorneys the cost of criminal appeals that used to be handled by state prosecutors. “This thing about, ‘we need to execute him,’ the actual mechanics of the court system, it’s not happening,” Learner said. “Realizing the reality of the death penalty in North Carolina through the court system, it’s really about worthless.” Looking to the future, he said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if North Carolina eventually had a moratorium or completely dismantled the death penalty.”
(M. Seng, "It's not a game": District Attorney, Capital Defender dive into importance of negotiations, death penalty ineffectiveness," The Hickory Daily Record, September 24, 2017.) See Costs, Representation, and Sentencing.