North Carolina’s death penalty system has finally been exposed as just another failed government program. In light of two recent shocking revelations, the time has come to shut the system down.
First, an independent audit of one unit of the State Bureau of Investigation’s (SBI) crime labs ordered by Attorney General Roy Cooper found that the SBI had cooked the books and misrepresented blood analysis lab results in more than 200 cases, including seven capital cases: four current death row inmates and three executed men. The audit focused only on the SBI’s analysis of blood evidence, one of six units of the SBI lab. We don’t yet know how many cases were contaminated by false reports and findings in other SBI lab sections, such as firearms and DNA evidence.
These stunning SBI findings came on the heels of recent studies documenting racial disparities in the state’s capital punishment system.
North Carolina prosecutors have discriminated against black citizens when selecting juries in capital cases by removing qualified black jurors at twice the rate that they removed other jurors. They were also at least twice as likely to seek the death penalty if the homicide victim was white than if the victim was black. These facts should form the basis of relief under North Carolina’s new Racial Justice Act for scores of death row inmates, such that their sentences should be converted to life without any possibility of parole rather than death.
The question is, where does North Carolina go from here?
In addition to commencing a complete, independent audit of the SBI lab and creating an independent crime lab — things that even the head of the District Attorneys’ Association has acknowledged are needed — the state legislature should repeal our death penalty statute.
Gov. Beverly Purdue should also commute the sentences of all current death row prisoners to sentences of life without possibility of parole.
Merely instituting a moratorium on the death penalty is simply not enough, as that implies the broken death penalty system will be revved up again. If that happens, there will be no protection against future revelations that defendants were unfairly sent to their deaths.
The death penalty needs to be abolished for at least three reasons.
One is that as these recent revelations demonstrate, we simply cannot trust the fairness of the system.
Another is the very real possibility of doing the unthinkable — executing an innocent person. So far, North Carolina has escaped charges of executing the innocent, although we have come too close for comfort. We know that, at a minimum, the state has wrongfully convicted at least seven innocent individuals and sentenced them to death. These men collectively served 52 years on death row for crimes they didn’t commit. One of them literally came within days of his execution.
The third reason is that the state cannot afford its failed capital punishment program. North Carolina faced an $800 million budget shortfall last year and has been forced to make deep cuts across social agencies, including public health, services for the elderly, and education. A 2005-2006 study by an economist at Duke University, completed before the SBI findings were revealed, found that North Carolina could save $11 million a year by ending the death penalty.
In light of the new findings about the SBI, this estimate is certainly low. It will take years of additional expensive court, attorney, and scientist resources to fully investigate and undo the SBI’s slanted work in all death row cases. Rather than wasting millions of dollars on a broken down death penalty system, we would be far wiser spending it on police officers and teachers.
North Carolina should follow the path set out by New Mexico and New Jersey. In those states, the legislatures and governors stepped up to the plate and made the choice to end their expensive, error-filled government experiments in executions. North Carolina should do the same.
CORRECTION: The headline on an earlier version of this post was “North Carolina’s Path to Moratorium.” It has been changed to better reflect the message of the post.