CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Criminal justice experts in North Carolina are calling the death penalty part of a “sordid history” of racial terror.
A brief filed in a North Carolina case by the nonprofit Promise of Justice Initiative argues that capital punishment now is used so rarely that it should be considered “cruel or unusual” under the state Constitution.
Charlotte-based attorney Henderson Hill, executive director of the 8th Amendment Project, helped file the brief, representing others who hope to get the death penalty abolished.
“Judges, prosecutors, law enforcement have a unique take, especially the disparities that exist in the administration of the death penalty,” Hill states. “They’ve had to preside over those trials, they’ve investigated the cases, and they are in a unique position to see just how arbitrary the imposition of the death penalty is.”
The brief was filed with the American Civil Liberties Union Capital Punishment Project and the 8th Amendment Project as counsel.
Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman has defended the death penalty, saying, “There are times when the facts of the case are so egregious, so terrible, that we believe it’s appropriate for the community to make the decision in the case through the jury process.”
The brief was filed in the case of Rayford Burke, a North Carolina man who is challenging his death sentence under the state’s Racial Justice Act.
Burke alleges that prosecutors illegally excluded African-Americans from his jury, leading to a death sentence by an all-white jury for the murder of police informant Timothy Morrison.
Other state supreme courts – including in Washington and Delaware – recently have declared their death penalty laws unconstitutional.
Hill says death penalty opponents also found that race and geography play a role in capital cases.
“So, we think that these other sister states provide a good model for the North Carolina Supreme Court to reconsider the death penalty in light of these developments, and in light of our greater information about how the death penalty actually operates,” he states.
The brief also asserts that North Carolina largely has abandoned the death penalty. No one has been executed in the state since 2006.
And in a poll of more than 500 voters across the state, 70 percent believe it is likely that an innocent person has been
executed in North Carolina.