by Bob Geary
In the Indy this week, I wrote about the N.C. Senate's vote to repeal the Racial Justice Act, a law meant to prevent executions in murder cases where the death sentence was a product of racial bias. The bill to repeal it, Senate Bill 9, passed both houses on party-line votes, with nearly every Republican voting yes and every Democrat voting no.
So now Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, is "thinking hard" about whether the RJA should be repealed or not? That's what she says. As quoted in the N&O:
"I'm a real strong supporter of the death penalty," Perdue said. "We should not allow discrimination based on race, poverty or any other factor to infect the criminal justice system. I'm thinking about it hard."
A couple of things.
First, Perdue may be a "strong" death penalty proponent, but most North Carolinians aren't. I say this not because of polls, which show public sentiment on the death penalty split. Rather, I would point to the jurors in North Carolina capital trials, all of whom must declare in advance their support for the death penalty and their willingness to vote a death sentence in the case they're about to hear.
I repeat: To be on a jury in a capital case — a case in which the defendant, if convicted, is subject to the death penalty — you must be a death-penalty supporter. If you so much as hint that the death penalty is something that most of the civilized world has put in the past, you are summarily "excused" from the jury pool, thank you very much ...
... and yet ...
... over the past three years in North Carolina, in 25 capital trials which resulted in first-degree murder convictions that might have led to a death sentence, the pro-death penalty jurors decided 17 times out of 25 on a sentence of life imprisonment without parole instead of the death penalty.
In other words, there aren't too many "strong" death-penalty supporters in North Carolina even among those who say they're supporters.
But wait. Only 25 murder convictions went to the jury for a possible death sentence in the last three years?
Yes, and that's the second thing. This state has 44 District Attorneys, and all but two of them support the N.C. Conference of DA's call for repeal of the Racial Justice Act. They, too, are "strong" supporters of the death penalty, supposedly, and yet they rarely practice what they (if you'll pardon the expression) preach.
In the vast majority of murders, the D.A.'s take the death penalty off the table before the case even goes to trial.
And make no mistake. Until capital punishment is abolished in North Carolina, It isn't Gov. Perdue who decides if we have a death penalty, or the General Assembly or even the juries. It's the District Attorneys. God-like, they decide whether an accused murderer, if tried and found guilty, should live or be put in jeopardy of dying. In almost every case, their answer is: Live.
According to the N.C. Department of Justice crime statistics, there are 400-plus murders a year in the state — 487 last year, 468 the year before. Some go unsolved, of course. Some result in a plea bargain to a manslaughter or second-degree murder conviction. Only a handful go to court on a first-degree murder charge.
Just 32 murder cases did so in the last three years, according to statistics supplied by the state's Center for Death Penalty Litigation. Of the 32, seven cases ended with a plea bargain during the trial ... or with a judge's decision to bar a death sentence because of prosecutorial or police misconduct ... or in one case, with a not-guilty verdict.
That leaves the 25 cases that resulted in a first-degree murder conviction. And to repeat, in 17 of the 25, the death-penalty supporting jury did not impose a death sentence.
So of the more than 1,000 murders in North Carolina in the last three years, just eight — 8 — sent the killer to death row.
Did those 8 involve racial bias? Proponents of the RJA say it's vital to find out before any of the eight are executed.
But whether racial bias or something else — these were perhaps the "easy" cases involving poor defendants with no family support and a victim's family thirsting for blood? — the 8 death-row sentences are, almost by definition, the leavings from a process of capital punishment so misguided that even its "strong" proponents don't have the stomach for it any more.
I've only covered one capital trial from start to finish. To me, it put the lie to the idea that only the most heinous murders will result in a death sentence. And it reinforced my impression that the bias in the system is against poor black or Hispanic men who, for reasons of mental illness and/or drug addiction, kill a white woman in a spasm of violence.
In the case I covered, a rich white guy murdered his fiance because he had a hot new lover and didn't want to go through with the marriage. The killing was premeditated, cold-blooded, planned-out and, but for the man's stupidity, he might've gotten away with it. Heinous? I can't think of anything worse.
I will say that the D.A. — in Wake County — sought the death penalty. But at the very end of the trial, the man confessed and pleaded for his life, and the supposedly death-penalty supporting jury, after convicting him of first-degree murder, spent less than one hour on his sentence before deciding to let him live.
Even people who say they support the death penalty are biased against it. Only a deep bias the other way — something like a racial bias — ever causes them to actually resort to it.