Death Row

Concertina wire surrounding a prison
Kate Ter Harr / Flickr Creative Commons

The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled on Friday that three death row inmates will have their sentences reduced to life in prison through the state's now-defunct Racial Justice Act.

Dr. Joel Zivot stared at the autopsy reports. The language was dry and clinical, in stark contrast to the weight of what they contained — detailed, graphic accounts of the bodies of inmates executed by lethal injection in Georgia.

Headshots of Tessie Castillo, Lyle May and three other co-authors of "Crimson Letters"
Tessie Castillo

The criminal justice system puts prisoners out of sight and out of mind for the public. But the recently published book “Crimson Letters: Voices from Death Row” (Black Rose Writing/2020) aims to draw back the veil on the people and realities that make up North Carolina’s death row. 

StarsApart/Flickr/CC

The North Carolina Supreme Court banned the state from reinstating the death sentence on a Black man named Marcus Robinson last Friday. Robinson was removed from death row in 2012  and sentenced to life without parole after a North Carolina judge found that his trial was influenced by racial discrimination in the jury. At Robinson’s original trial, the prosecution removed half of qualified Black jurors from serving — but only 15% of white jurors. 

An image of a jail cell
AlexVan / pixabay Creative Commons

At least two death row inmates in North Carolina can use a law addressing racial discrimination to seek life sentences instead, even though the law has since been amended and repealed, the state Supreme Court ruled on Friday.

Courtesy of Floyd McKissick Jr.

A University of Michigan study of North Carolina death penalty trials from 2012 showed that prosecutors on average struck black jurors at 2.5 times the rate of white jurors. Even though the U.S. Supreme Court forbid prosecutors from using the basis of race alone to reject jurors, racial bias is alive and well in North Carolina’s justice system.

A drawing of Alabama.
Julienne Alexander / Criminal

Convicted criminals can sit on death row for many years after the crime scene is cleaned up and packed away.

In this week's Criminal Podcast, host Phoebe Judge interviews attorney and activist Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, a state with one of the highest execution rates in the country.

Stevenson started out at Harvard Law School, but was ambivalent about his career choice until an internship sent him to Atlanta to inform an inmate that his execution date wouldn't come within a year.

Image of prison cells
Chris Miller / Flickr Creative Commons

More than 3,000 individuals are currently incarcerated on death row. And the headlines are filled with the details of the crimes they committed and their journeys in the criminal justice system.

But what do we know about their lives, both before their sentencing and after their incarcerations? 

A picture of a syringe.
hitthatswitch / Flickr

Earlier this week, a judge in North Carolina determined the Craig Steven Hicks would be eligible for the death penalty for his role in the shootings of three students in Chapel Hill.  But the state of North Carolina has not put anyone to death since 2006.  The state is one of 34 in the country that allows the death penalty, but the practice here is rarely used.  That was not always the case.

Execution chamber
Wikipedia

Stephen Lich Tyler drove to Texas last week to witness the execution of his father’s killer, Ramiro Hernandez Llanas. Before he left, he spoke on The State of Things about his struggles with the decision to attend and his expectations of the execution. He returned to the studio today to talk with host Frank Stasio about the experience and how it shaped his perspective on the death penalty.

Lethal injection room
Wikipedia Creative Commons

On Wednesday night, the State of Texas executed Ramiro Hernandez-Llanas, a man convicted of the 1997 killing of professor Glen Lich.

Hernandez-Llanas was an immigrant hired to work on the Lich property when he lured Lich outside the home and beat him to death. He then returned to the house and attacked Lich's wife.

Lich was not Hernandez-Llanas's first murder victim. Hernandez-Llanas had escaped from Mexican prison where he was serving a 25-year sentence for murder.

Photo: Death row inmates are housed at Central Prison in Raleigh. No executions have been carried out in North Carolina since 2006.
North Carolina Department of Public Safety

The North Carolina Court of Appeals sent back to a lower court on Tuesday a case over who decides how death row prisoners are executed.  The court says the case has changed too much for it to make an   opinion.  It started out with four death-row inmates who said the state’s method of execution was cruel and unusual.

Photo: The lethal injection room at San Quentin State Prison
California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation / Public Doman

Prosecutors in Wake County are selecting a jury in a first-degree murder trial this week. It is the fifth case in North Carolina this year where a defendant could face capital punishment. But a series of lawsuits have blocked the death penalty for years in this state. And now, a little-known drug could become another obstacle.

One hundred and thirty eight people have been exonerated of capital crimes and released from death row since 1973. These tragic stories don't always get told, but two professors wanted to make sure that the voices of some exonerees were heard. Saundra Westervelt and Kimberly Cook explore the post-incarceration struggle of 18 of them in their new book “Life After Death Row: Exonerees’ Search for Community and Identity” (Rutgers University Press/2012).

State lawmakers have overridden the governor's veto of a bill that waters down the Racial Justice Act. The Act, passed in 2009, allows death row prisoners to challenge their sentences based on statistical evidence of discrimination. The new bill will limit the time frame and scope of statistics that inmates can use to challenge their sentences. Republican House Majority Leader Paul Stam thinks that's reasonable.

Republican legislative leaders are expected to try to override the governor's veto of a measure that would water down the Racial Justice Act. The Act, passed in 2009, allows death row prisoners to appeal their sentences using statistical evidence of discrimination.

Advocates of the state's Racial Justice Act are hailing a judge's ruling today that race was a factor in a death row inmate's jury selection. Marcus Robinson was sentenced in 1994 for murder. Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks ruled that prosecutors in the trial disqualified potential black jurors more often than others. Stephen Dear with People of Faith Against the Death Penalty says he thinks this decision shows that bias has played a role in convictions.