Dec. 18, 2014. In 2014, North Carolina passed its eighth year without an execution, part of a national trend away from the use of the death penalty, a new report shows.
Across the country, juries sentenced only 72 people to death this year, the lowest number in 40 years. Thirty-five people were executed, marking a 20-year low. Executions were carried out in just seven states, down from nine in 2013. (See the full report at http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/YearEnd2014)
In North Carolina, there were three new death sentences in 2014, up from one in 2013 and none in 2012. However, the number remained at historic lows compared with the death penalty’s peak in the late 1990s, when 20 to 30 new death sentences were handed down each year.
“Considering everything we have seen this year – innocent people released from death row, horribly botched lethal injections in several states – it’s no wonder the people of North Carolina no longer feel comfortable with executions,” said Gretchen M. Engel, executive director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, a non-profit law firm in Durham that represents death row inmates and is a member of the N.C. Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
Nationally, the death penalty has now fallen out of use in a majority of states. Eighteen states have legally banned executions, and another eight have either had no executions or no death sentences in the past decade.
Seven death sentenced men were exonerated this year in the United States, including North Carolina’s longest serving death row inmate, Henry McCollum, and his brother, Leon Brown, who was originally sentenced to death but later resentenced to life in prison. McCollum and Brown, both of whom are intellectually disabled, were coerced as teens into confessing to a rape and murder they did not commit. In September, 30 years after they were sentenced to die in Robeson County, DNA testing proved that another man was the killer.
“North Carolina has experienced first-hand the disastrous mistakes our death penalty can make. For 30 years, we didn’t know McCollum and Brown were innocent,” Engel said. “We must question continuing to spend millions of dollars each year trying to win death sentences that may never be carried out.”
Other innocent men were released in Florida, Louisiana and Ohio. Nationwide, 150 innocent people have now been exonerated after receiving death sentences.
2014 also saw botched lethal injections in Ohio, Oklahoma and Arizona, during which experimental drug combinations led to prolonged and difficult executions. In Oklahoma, prison officials described the April execution of Clayton Lockett as a bloody, chaotic mess that left doctors spattered in blood, traumatized prison workers, and sent witnesses running from the room. The execution was called off, but Lockett died from a heart attack after 43 minutes.
In North Carolina, a new execution protocol calls for the use of pentobarbital, the very drug that other states have been unable to procure for use in executions. Legal challenges to North Carolina’s protocol have kept executions suspended indefinitely.
The N.C. Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty is a non-partisan network of organizations and citizens across the state who work cooperatively to reform North Carolina’s capital punishment system. Learn more about the death penalty in North Carolina at NCDeathPenalty.org.