Criminal Justice Experts Say Death Penalty Is Broken and Cannot Be Fixed

February 18, 2019

DURHAM, N.C. — A group of former prosecutors, judges, and law enforcement officials are asking the North Carolina Supreme Court to find the death penalty unconstitutional. In a friend-of-the-court brief, the group argues the death penalty is now used so rarely that it serves no purpose and should be considered “cruel or unusual” under the state constitution.

The brief was filed late Friday by the Promise of Justice Initiative, with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Capital Punishment Project, Henderson Hill, and the 8th Amendment Project as counsel.

The brief comes as other state supreme courts — including Washington and Delaware — have recently declared their states’ death penalty laws unconstitutional. The North Carolina brief was signed by 12 people, including former Superior Court Judge Leon Stanback, former District Attorney Rob Corbett, and former Wake County Chief Homicide Detective Steve Hale.

“The time has come to consider whether the system of capital punishment that currently operates in North Carolina violates the evolving standards of decency,” the group wrote. They noted that supreme courts and judges across the country “have recognized that the penalty is corrupted by arbitrariness, plagued by error and discrimination, and unsupported by evidence that it deters [crime].”

The group filed their brief in the case of Rayford Burke, a North Carolina death row prisoner who is challenging his death sentence under the state’s Racial Justice Act (RJA). Burke is asking the court to allow him to present evidence that prosecutors illegally excluded African-Americans from his jury, leading Burke to be sentenced by an all-white jury at a trial where prosecutors referred to Burke as a “big black bull.”

“We believe the court needs to take a broad perspective on the RJA litigation and troubling practices that have developed around the exclusion of jurors based on race to acknowledge that racial bias is one of many systemic and irreparable problems with our state’s death penalty,” said Rob Corbett, former assistant district attorney in Mecklenburg County. “Given the national and state trends away from the death penalty, it is hard to argue that it fulfills an indispensable role in our criminal justice system. As a former prosecutor, I am confident that it does not deter crime, make our state safer, or our justice system more effective. At this stage, the most reasonable action is to abolish its use in North Carolina.” 

The brief points to statistics showing North Carolina has largely abandoned the death penalty. No one has been executed since 2006, and in the past seven years, the state has averaged less than one new death sentence per year. It also cites studies showing that the death penalty does not deter murder, that it is imposed arbitrarily, and that a significant number of people sentenced to death are innocent. Lastly, they argue that the death penalty is part of a “sordid history” of lynching and racial terror.

The brief is online here:

https://www.aclu.org/legal-document/north-carolina-v-rayford-burke-amicus-brief

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