North Carolina’s death penalty debate

Viewpoint: Los Angeles Times

The machinery of death is ripping itself to chunks in North Carolina. Would that this would happen in more places — like, say, California.

Conservatives and prosecutors in the Tarheel State are up in arms over a 2009 law that allows death row inmates to reduce their sentences to life without parole if they can prove racial bias in sentencing or jury selection — even if the bias wasn’t directed at them but at others. In other words, if convicts can show a statistical pattern of racial bias statewide, they can use it as evidence that their own trial may have been skewed. And they don’t have to be minorities to appeal; a white inmate who can show excessive dismissal of black potential jurors might be able to dodge the executioner.

Opponents of the law are calling it a backdoor way to end the death penalty, and they’re probably not wrong. That’s because it’s not going to be very hard for inmates to demonstrate racial bias. A Michigan State University study found that, between 1990 and 2010, North Carolina prosecutors dismissed black potential jurors at twice the rate of nonblacks in death penalty cases.

But it’s not an ideal solution. The approach is laden with complications and, moreover, North Carolina has a potential nightmare brewing: Because the sentence of life without parole didn’t exist there before 1994, it’s possible that inmates sentenced before then who successfully overturn their death sentences could be set free.

The better way? Borrow a page from Illinois, New Mexico and other states that have done away with the death penalty and replaced it with life without parole.

Capital punishment imposes ruinous costs on states, it can’t be reversed if an inmate is later exonerated, it’s highly questionable whether it can be carried out in a humane manner, and it protects society from killers no better than putting them away for life. As for the possibility of racial bias in sentencing, there probably isn’t a reliable way to eliminate it. North Carolina is going through the back door when, with more honesty and fewer complications, it could go through the front.


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