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Once commonplace, executions a rarity – for now

Executions for capital crimes, once a common occurrence in North Carolina, have seen a dramatic slowdown in recent years. But the death penalty remains a hot-button topic, albeit one with an uncertain future.

“The death penalty has been a part of North Carolina law since the state was a British colony,” says Jeffrey Welty, University of North Carolina professor of public law and government. “The first known execution by colonial authorities was the hanging of a Native American man in 1726.”

But the landmark 1976 Supreme Court case Furman v. Georgia, in which the defendant argued the death penalty amounted to “cruel and unusual” punishment, vacated the death penalty statutes in 40 states, and deferred the sentences of 629 death row inmates around the country.

Furman essentially forced states to address their use of the death penalty.  In 1977, North Carolina rewrote its death penalty statute, joining 34 other death penalty states. The law reserves the death penalty for murder cases in which there are aggravating circumstances.

“Imposition of a death sentence requires that the defendant be convicted of first-degree murder, either in a capital trial or following a guilty plea,” said Philip J. Cook, professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. “The death sentence may only be imposed by a jury.”

Since 1976 there have been 43 executions in the state, but the first execution after Furman did not occur until 1984. That same year, North Carolina executed its first female, Velma Barfield, who also had the distinction of being the first female executed in the nation after Furman.

As of January 2013, there are 3,125 persons on death row nationally, including 63 women. In the state there are currently 161 convicted prisoners on death row, including four women. Executions are performed at Raleigh’s Central Prison, but none have occurred since August 2006 due to litigation over the use of lethal injection as the means of execution.

One of the many issues surrounding the death penalty is the enormous expense it places on the state’s wallet. The amount of money spent on indigent defense, appeals process, imprisonment, and actual execution can be staggering.

“Despite the long-term decline in the number of death sentences and the lack of executions, the cost of the death penalty in North Carolina remains high,” said Cook, who did an extensive study on the topic in 1993 at the request of then Chief Justice James G. Exum Jr., who arranged funding for study.

Cook has re-released the study on two occasions with updated numbers. The latest was in 2009.

“The conclusion is that North Carolina would have spent almost $11 million less each year on criminal justice activities including imprisonment without the death penalty,” Cook said.

The study also found that capital trials lasted an average of 11.7 days longer than noncapital trials. Furthermore, the study noted that the resources freed up by not trying death penalty cases could be redirected to expand prosecution of other crimes.

Over the years, other issues have impacted the number of executions, including a 2007 announcement by the North Carolina Medical Board that licensed doctors could no longer participate in executions other than certifying the inmate’s death.

“The possibility of professional discipline rendered it impossible for the state to procure a physician to oversee executions,” Welty said, “yet [the statute] mandated the presence of a ‘surgeon or physician of the penitentiary.’”

A federal judge ruled that Eighth Amendment concerns might be raised if medical personnel did not monitor inmates while they were being executed. Later, the state Supreme Court ruled that penalties handed down to physicians from the state medical board was beyond its authority.

But the biggest impediments to the death penalty so far has been the implementation of the Racial Justice Act in 2009.  Under the act, those convicted and sentenced to death are permitted to appeal using statistical evidence showing race played a substantial part in their jury selection or the prosecutor’s decision to seek the death penalty.

The result meant virtually all death-row inmates in North Carolina filed claims under the act, essentially bringing executions to a halt. A bill to repeal the act is pending in the General Assembly.

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