If North Carolina proceeds with the scheduled execution of Ernest McCarver on Friday, the state will be taking the life of a man classified as mentally impaired by both his jury and intelligence tests. Executing him, some claim, is similar in many respects to executing a child. Aside from that, the death penalty is supposed to be reserved for the most flagrant murderers, those who premeditated their crime, were fully aware of their acts and have shown no remorse for taking life. McCarver does not meet the criteria.
McCarver was born in 1960. In January of 1987, he robbed and killed Woodrow Hartley, a restaurateur in Cabarrus County. He took desperate action at a time when his nightmarish life was at one of its many low points.
McCarver was born into a life of poverty and crime--both of his parents were imprisoned for theft when he was 2 years old, and a few years later, they forced to him to participate in robberies. Passing through foster homes, orphanages, and the home of his sickly and impoverished grandmother, McCarver says he and his brother Lee were subjected to the worst of abuses, emotional, physical and sexual. At his murder trial, he told the jury that, for all practical purposes, "We didn't have parents."
In his teens, McCarver had a brief reunion with his father. Again he and his brother were pressed into committing robberies. His father went back to prison. Ernest stumbled along, and was imprisoned himself in 1984 for writing bad checks.
There was one bright spot in his life. In 1986, he found a girlfriend and they conceived a child. But McCarver's girlfriend left him before the child was born, and he says the despair that followed, along with his perpetual poverty, led him to commit the robbery.
McCarver confessed to the crime. The jury in his trial for first-degree murder came back deadlocked on the question of whether he should be imprisoned for life or executed. On orders from the judge, they kept deliberating for nine more hours before selecting the death sentence. McCarver's appeals have failed, but two justices of the N.C. Supreme Court ruled that the sentence should be overruled, given the judge's improper instructions to the jury in the original trial.
North Carolina-based People of Faith Against the Death Penalty is fighting to save McCarver's life, arguing that, first and foremost, our state has ruled out execution of children--defined as people under the age of 17. Several indicators put the 40-year-old McCarver mentally below that threshold. The jury in his murder trial gauged his intellectual functioning at the 10- to 12-year-old level. He has a third-grade reading comprehension. In a recent test, McCarver was found to have an IQ of 67; 70 and below is considered mentally retarded. North Carolina, along with 24 other states, still permits the execution of retarded convicts.
In an op-ed for The News & Observer last Sunday, Gene Nichol, dean of the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law, argued that "whether we support or oppose capital punishment as a general matter, we ought to reject applying it to the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of society. ... There is little doubt that at some point in our future we will come to regard the execution of the mentally retarded with horror."
If he is executed this week, McCarver's death will come amid a chorus of calls from civic organizations, municipalities, activists, and church and legal groups for a moratorium on executions until the application of the death penalty receives further scrutiny. Last fall, a research commission of the North Carolina Legislature backed a moratorium until the state's application of the death penalty is explored in depth. On Jan. 18, the Board of Governors of the N.C. Bar Association did the same.
If the moratorium movement continues to build momentum, we may be moving toward abolition of the state's "right" to take life. McCarver, then, could conceivably be one of the last people to be executed in North Carolina. This situation begs the question: If we are soon to abandon the death penalty anyway, how would we look back on the execution of Ernest McCarver, a mentally retarded man who did a miserable thing after a miserable life?