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The Paper Tiger Death Penalty in North Carolina

In this May 2006 photo, the execution chamber at Central Prison in Raleigh, N.C., is shown.

A rush to execute death row inmates in Arkansas led to national concern about the use of the death penalty. In North Carolina, juries continue to send people to death row. They sentenced 16 people to death in the last ten years. But in that time there has not been a single execution. Some are questioning why the country has the death penalty if it is not being used. Others advocate for abolishing it altogether. They say it does not deliver the justice it intended, costs too much, is not administered fairly, and could amount to cruel and unusual punishment.

Host Frank Stasio talks with WUNC reporter Rusty Jacobs about his upcoming feature on the death penalty in North Carolina. He also talks with Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill, retired Southern Pines Police Chief Gerald Galloway, Arkansas State Representative Rebecca Petty, and Center for Death Penalty Litigation staff attorney David Weiss about how these issues have played out in their careers.

Interview Highlights

Rusty Jacobs on the status of the death penalty in North Carolina

It’s in limbo. The stay was put in place by Wake County Superior Court Judge Don Stephens back in 2007 when there was litigation over the constitutionality of the then three-drug protocol...Eventually in 2012 the legislature sought to remove the hurdles to resuming executions. And they only prolonged the stay because there were significant changes to the law; They invested all this authority in the Department of Public Safety and the Secretary of that department in administering lethal injections. The protocol was changed to one drug- pentobarbital. The North Carolina medical board and any licensing boards were removed from disciplining medical personnel from participating in executions. And that has led to a new host of legal issues. There’s pending litigation. And in 2014, the judge in Wake County, Don Stephens, again imposed a blanket stay on executions. And that’s where we are. 

Rusty Jacobs on party support for the death penalty in North Carolina

Jim O’Neill, District Attorney for Forsyth County, he’s a Republican – supports it. Even Lorrin Freeman, Democrat in Wake County, still says there is going to be a case that cries out for that kind of justice. And then you have a conservative Republican lawmaker, Jon Hardister, in the General Assembly who is an adamant, vocal opponent to the death penalty...He’s against the cost of applying the death penalty. He’s against the possibility that there are wrongful convictions and that somebody innocent could be executed. You know, ‘one is too many.’ So he came to it as a conservative, and that’s where he stands. But, I will tell you, Frank, as a legislator he sees no chance of passing any kind of legislation that would abolish the death penalty at least for now, because the House Speaker is a supporter of the death penalty. He doesn’t see a way to push that legislation forward.

Rusty Jacobs on the the death penalty becoming symbolic

The term “symbolic” came up a lot in my conversations, both with District Attorney Lorrin Freeman and District Attorney Jim O’Neill. That, in a sense because of this stay, this court-ordered stay on executions, any death penalty imposed is kind of symbolic at this point. Nobody knows if or when anybody will actually be executed in North Carolina. And Lorrin Freeman even wondered in our conversation whether that frees up juries and frees up district attorneys to both pursue the death penalty and opt for it as a solution. Because who knows if it will ever happen? There is something symbolic about it. It gives a chance for the public community to voice its belief that it’s an appropriate measure of justice. But we don’t have to see...the strong actual outcome in a death penalty case. 

Gerald Galloway on why his ideas on the death penalty changed

The main reason that I joined this effort to look at the death penalty and its dysfunction was that I was concerned that victims were not treated fairly in the system. I believe that the sentence promises victims something that it rarely, if ever, delivers. And while the defendant is getting the public attention and also the public funding to continue to deal with their possible innocence, or dysfunction, in the trial, then the victim is left in the background. And also many times the victims’ families will die before the defendant does...There’s a belief, and also I can kind of understand this, that the most heinous crimes deserve death...Unfortunately as a nation, we don’t administer the death penalty well. We don’t have a process that’s fair to everybody with regard to that. And the most heinous people are not always the ones to get the death penalty. 

Jim O’Neill on decisions about pursuing the death penalty

In terms of how we look at the cases here, in Forsyth County, we have reserved the right to pursue the death penalty for those cases that are most heinous and cruel, and it’s reserved for the worst of the worst. One of the things that we like to do is we like to bring the victim’s family in and sit down and explain to them just exactly how the process is going to work. And we are very upfront with them and tell them there’s currently a de facto moratorium in North Carolina. We had an individual who had been the victim of a shooting, and his wife was brutally murdered. And he was 78 years old at the time, and I had to explain to him that if we had to pursue the death penalty there’s a good likelihood that he will not live long enough to see his wife’s killer serve justice and receive the death penalty. And he understood that. And although it’s hard for the average citizen to grasp, once he got over that hurdle, he decided that he wanted to pursue it. We pursued it as well. And ultimately got a death verdict. 

David Weiss on mistakes and discrimination in the system

Human fallibility is just part of the system because we have a human system. Racial bias is a piece of it. The other piece of it is innocence. I think we have an innocence problem with our death penalty. Nationwide, for every nine people who have been executed in the history of the death penalty in this country, one person has been exonerated. The National Academy of Sciences estimated that about four percent of the people on death row may well be innocent. And so you have this situation where it is true, there are these terribly heinous, tragic, heartbreaking crimes. But we have just never been able to devise a system where were are able to sort those out and figure out which are truly the cases that deserve the death penalty and where are we making these mistakes putting innocent people to death. That’s why I think we just can’t have the death penalty. I’ve heard someone else use this analogy and I think it’s a pretty good one: If every one out of 10 apples that was ate was poisonous and we got sick from it, we’d probably all stop eating apples. And I think that same common sense argument should apply here as well. 

Rebecca Petty on emotional involvement in public policy

I know in the state of Arkansas we have all been very, very careful of how we have carried these executions out. And of course I have been a big proponent in making sure they’re done correctly. Because I don’t want Arkansas to be looked at as, ‘Hey, there’s the mom that went in and reformed the way we’re doing the death penalty.’ 
And of course I have my personal stake. I  had a very young, 12-year-old daughter who was just brutalized. And the facts of that case were: the perpetrator murdered her, raped her, left her out in the forest and came back and assisted us in the search for three days. So when the prosecutor came back and charged him with capital murder, I just had to agree with him that there are times that grave crimes deserve grave punishment. And that’s what happened in my case. There was no doubt that he did it. 
And my part in the state of Arkansas is to, now as a legislator, make sure that what we do here we do it right, and we do it the right way. Because I’m going to promise you that these four men that have recently been executed, they did not suffer in the least amount that say, my daughter suffered, or say, their four victims suffered...And I agree with the prosecutor who said basically what I just said that great crimes deserve great punishments. You have to weigh that out. 


Jennifer Brookland is the American Homefront Project Veterans Reporting Fellow. She covers stories about the military and veterans as well as issues affecting the people and places of North Carolina.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
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