That's the title of an editorial published in the Sunday edition of the Durham Herald-Sun in North Carolina.
Stanley Peele, a columnist for The Herald-Sun and Chapel Hill Herald, wrote a three-part series on the death penalty that appeared in The Herald-Sun this week. He highlights a number of concerns with how the death penalty is implemented, and what the state of death row is today in North Carolina.
Death row is in limbo in North Carolina, thanks to a number of factors that have combined to result, in essence, in a moratorium on the death penalty in our state, in all but name.
No inmate has been put to death since Aug. 18, 2006, though 155 inmates remain on death row.
It is a relief that death row has ground to a halt. A system as rife with inconsistencies and potential unfairness as this one should not be used to deal out the ultimate punishment.
Peele, a judge who serves in an emergency capacity throughout the state, makes a number of compelling points in his series.
Defendants are more likely to get a death sentence in Wake County, which has 10 death row inmates, than Durham County, which has none.
About 149 cases stand to be litigated under the Racial Justice Act, a law that allows statistics to be used in order to show bias, and if bias is shown, a sentence would be reduced from death to life without parole. Those cases, Peele writes, may take years in some instances to decide. The Racial Justice Act was used in a case this year to reduce a sentence to life, although since that case it has been weakened by an amendment passed in July.
The state may be unable to find medical assistance to perform executions, with both the American Medical Association and North Carolina Medical Board opposed to having doctors attend. (North Carolina’s method of execution is lethal injection).
"Death sentences more likely in some counties than others," is the first of Stanley Peele's three-article series.
In North Carolina there were no executions between 1961 and 1984. Since then, we have had six years in which there were no executions, nine years in which there were one or two executions, five years with three executions, three years with four executions, and one year in which there were five executions.
There has been a marked drop in the number of death penalties imposed in North Carolina. In 1995, 34 prisoners were sent to death row. By 2007, the number dropped to seven; and starting with 2007, an average of 2.6 prisoners per year have gone to death row.
On Feb. 18, 2011, the death sentence of Isaac Jackson Stroud, of Durham, was commuted to life in prison without parole. The reason for this commutation was Stroud’s diminished mental state at the time of the murder. It is alleged that he could not understand why he was sentenced to death.
As a result, there are no prisoners from Durham County on death row.
It also means there are now eight counties in the central-northern part of the state that have no prisoners on death row. Those counties are Lee, Chatham, Orange, Durham, Person Granville, Vance, Warren and Franklin.
It is noteworthy that Wake County, which adjoins Durham and Orange Counties, has 10 prisoners on death row, the second-highest in the state. The county with the most people on death row is Forsyth with 13. Other counties with high numbers are: Cumberland with nine, Buncombe with eight, Randolph with eight and both Johnston and Gaston with seven. Fifty-six counties have prisoners on death row, and most of them have one or two prisoners there. Forty four counties have no death row prisoners.
Defendants have been more likely to get a death sentence in certain counties than others.
"Examining the death row population is complex," is the second article in the series.
There are 155 people on death row in North Carolina.
There have been no executions in North Carolina since Aug. 18, 2006. Is there a sensible way to deal with those on death row? Should they be kept there indefinitely?
Would it make sense to reduce the number of people on death row? And if this is done, how would it be done? One can say that this problem is so difficult that it nears impossibility. An attempt to rank them by the degree of cruelty or callousness of the offense for which they are on death row would be a grisly task, for the juries found all of them to be cruel and callous. Here are some possibilities:
The three-article series concludes with, "N.C. death penalty law remains in limbo."
There is a deadly war being fought. First, there are those who believe in the death penalty. Second, there are those who do not. Third, you have those in the middle. Some are undecided.
There are some legislators and judges who do not believe in the death penalty, but who cannot express their opinions. Legislators cannot express their opinion because they think to do so would be political suicide. Judges cannot do so because they are sworn to uphold the law.
There is a further complication. It is one thing to believe in the death penalty. Yet the closer a prisoner comes to an execution date, the more there is a tendency to be open to finding reasons to stay the execution.
The prospect of an actual execution weighs heavily upon us all.
Some judges may agree with the Michigan State University study citing bias in North Carolina death row cases, and other judges may disagree. If this happens, then we will have some prisoners who will be removed from death row and some who will not. This will mean our handling of death row cases will be unbalanced.
Earlier coverage from North Carolina begins at the link. Thanks to Gerda Stein for distributing.