In North Carolina, 141 men and women currently face death sentences, making the state home to the sixth-largest death row population in the country. This week, a new report from the Center for Death Penalty Litigation reveals that about three-quarters of these people were sentenced before a number of reforms were passed to ensure fairness and prevent wrongful convictions.
Gretchen Engel, the center’s executive director, said the difference between then and now is significant – and frustrating.
“We know that if these crimes happened today, that most of the people would not face the death penalty at trial,” she said, “and if they went to trial, would very unlikely be sentenced to death.”
The report, called “Unequal Justice,” found that 92 percent of people on death row were sentenced before 2008, when a package of state reforms took effect. Many were tried in the 1990s, when 25 to 35 were sentenced to death each year. Public opinion largely has shifted on capital punishment since then, although supporters of the death penalty have argued it is needed in the most heinous of crimes.
The report comes as North Carolina passed its 12th year without an execution and is on track for another year with no new death sentences. One person has received a death sentence in the last four years.
With the current knowledge of better trial practices and shifting public opinion, Engel said, the 141 cases should be reconsidered.
“Given that we have decided that the fairer way and the more reliable way of imposing the death penalty is under our current system,” she said, “we have to go back and figure out a mechanism to evaluate these old cases.”
Many of the reforms came after multiple exonerations in the Tar Heel State and elsewhere, where some people on death row were found to be innocent.
The report is online at cdpl.org.