Use of the death penalty reached historic lows in 2015, as North Carolina passed a full year with no new death sentences and neared a decade without an execution.
This year was the second since 2012 that N.C. juries did not send anyone to death row. It also marked more than nine years since executions were put on hold. The last inmate executed at Central Prison was Samuel Flippen in August 2006.
Until the past few years, North Carolina had never gone a year without a new death sentence in the modern era of the death penalty, which began in 1976. In the 1990s, North Carolina was one of the nation’s most enthusiastic death penalty users, imposing more than 20 new death sentences each year.
“I cannot overstate what a dramatic shift we’re seeing in North Carolina,” said Gretchen M. Engel, executive director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation. “We have undergone a real evolution as a society. We used to have blind faith in the capital punishment system. Today, we see that the system can get it wrong — badly wrong.”
Also in 2015:
- Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, both of whom were sentenced to death for a murder they did not commit, received a rare pardon of innocence from Gov. Pat McCrory. McCollum, who spent 30 years on death row before DNA testing exonerated him, was North Carolina’s longest serving death row inmate. His case was also cited this year by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer as a reason to abolish the death penalty.
- A new report from CDPL, On Trial for Their Lives: The Hidden Costs of Wrongful Capital Prosecutions in North Carolina, documented 56 cases since 1989 in which the state sought the death penalty against defendants, despite evidence too weak to prove their guilt. Every defendant eventually had all charges dismissed or was acquitted by a jury, but only after spending an average of two years in jail and costing the state millions.
- New voices emerged in opposition to the death penalty. Republican State Rep. Jon Hardister announced that he will work to pass legislation replacing North Carolina’s death penalty with life without parole. Just last week, Vince Rabil, a former assistant district attorney from Forsyth County who sent five people to death row in the 1990s, four of whom remain there today, wrote that he now supports ending the death penalty.
- Two more people, Kenneth Neal and Danny Hembree, were removed from death row because of errors in their cases. There are now 145 men and two women on North Carolina’s death row.
North Carolina’s declining use of the death penalty is part of a national shift away from capital punishment. Across the United States, new death sentences and executions reached their lowest point in decades.
According to a year-end report released Wednesday by the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington D.C., there were 28 executions in six states in 2015, the fewest since 1991, and many of them were gruesomely botched as states used untested drug combinations. Nationwide, only 49 new death sentences were imposed in 2015, the fewest in the death penalty’s modern era. Six more death row inmates were exonerated.
In North Carolina, capital prosecutions became exceedingly rare in 2015. In all 100 counties, prosecutors brought only four death penalty cases to trial this year, and none ended in a death sentence. In 2000, there were 57 death penalty trials and 18 death sentences across the state.
“More and more, prosecutors are not seeking death, and juries are telling us that life without parole is their preferred punishment,” said CDPL senior attorney Ken Rose, who represented McCollum and another exonerated death row inmate. “At the same time, our murder rates have remained at historic lows. Our state has woken up to the reality that the death penalty just isn’t worth the risk of executing an innocent person.”
The Center for Death Penalty Litigation, based in Durham, N.C., is a law firm that represents death-sentenced men and women in North Carolina and advocates for ending the death penalty.