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'It's just not working': UNC politics professor talks death penalty in N.C.

DTH- Frank Baumgartner 2.jpeg
Photo contributed by Frank Baumgartner

This week, the N.C. Supreme Court heard arguments for the cases of six death row inmates who are appealing their sentences. 

Frank Baumgartner, professor of political science at UNC, teaches “POLI 203: Race, Innocence, and the Decline of the Death Penalty" and has written two books on the death penalty.

Assistant City & State Editor Jamey Cross spoke with Baumgartner about the death penalty in North Carolina and its future. Responses were edited for clarity and length.

The Daily Tar Heel: Is it typical for the N.C. Supreme Court to hear this many death penalty cases at one time?

Frank Baumgartner: The reason for the cases all coming up at once comes from the legal fallout from the law that was passed in 2009 called the Racial Justice Act. The Racial Justice Act allowed an inmate who had been sentenced to death to be re-sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole if they could show that there had been even statistical patterns of disparate uses of the death penalty in the state, or in their judicial district, or in their county. 

In 2012, the General Assembly’s majority switched from Democratic to Republican, and they rescinded that law. I think 150 inmates on death row, which was almost all of them, have filed appeals, but only four of them had been heard. So the question before the court now is whether these inmates still have a valid claim even though there is no longer any such thing as the Racial Justice Act. It’s really kind of complicated and procedural, but the basic idea of it all is whether there’s unacceptable racial bias in jury selection, and whether that contaminates the death penalty in North Carolina. 

DTH: How is the death penalty in N.C. changing?

FB: In the 1990s and early 2000s, there might have been dozens of death sentences across the state in any given year. (North Carolina has) developed one of the largest death rows; we’ve sentenced over 500 people to death in the modern time, and there’s 140 people still on death row. But, since 2006, there hasn’t been a single execution.

It started with the Physician’s Association saying the role of a doctor was not to participate in an execution, so any doctor who participated would lose their medical license. Then, the lethal injection didn’t require a doctor, an EMT could do it. So the state got around that, but now they still don’t have a solution for what lethal injection drugs to use. In any case, we’ve never restarted the executions.

DTH: Why does the death penalty still exist?

FB: A lot of politicians say they want to save it for the truly heinous cases. In many states, we see politicians who are willing to abolish the death penalty. They’re concerned about issues of innocence because there’s been so much attention to the problem of innocent people being falsely accused and falsely convicted and ending up on death row.

About three quarters of death sentences are overturned on appeal, so only a small fraction of them will ever get carried out. It simply generates a lot of useless trials, warehousing people on death row and uncertainty for the victim. The mechanism of (the system) seems to be broken; it’s just not working. 

DTH: What might the future of the death penalty in N.C. look like?

FB: It’s slowly fading away. Depending on the outcomes of these cases, it might be ... an admission that, whatever we might like to think about the death penalty, the way it’s actually been practiced has been racially biased and in a way that gives false promise to the victims. All the states that have the death penalty also have the secondary punishment of life in prison without the possibility of parole, and that means you leave prison only in a casket. Perhaps that’s enough, maybe we don’t need the death penalty. 


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