October 3, 2012 http://www.starnewsonline.com
New Hanover County prosecutors decided last month to seek the death penalty against Cornell Haugabook Jr. for the June killing of a Chinese food delivery driver, despite doubts about whether such a sentence will ever be carried out.
North Carolina has not executed an inmate in six years because issues with the state medical board and unresolved litigation have led to a de facto moratorium. So while the state continues to pay for costly capital trials, no one is actually being put to death.
New Hanover County District Attorney Ben David, who is also president of the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys, said the moratorium has become a point of concern among prosecutors. “Any decision to move forward (with the death penalty) has to include a frank discussion with the victim’s family about the realistic possibility of the punishment being carried out,” he said.
The issue is particularly timely for New Hanover County, which is preparing to try Haugabook for his alleged involvement in the robbery and fatal shooting of Zhen Bo Liu. The 60-year-old immigrant was attempting to bring a food order to an address on South 13th Street when he was robbed and shot in the foot and face. Haugabook, 20, is one of six men facing charges in connection to the crime, but he is the only one legally eligible for the death penalty.
The district attorney’s office is also seeking death for Andrew Adams, 56, who is accused of bludgeoning 24-year-old Latricia Scott with a hammer and then burying her body in his backyard. Adams was arrested in January.
Prosecutors face a litany of hurdles when seeking death. For one, jurors have shown a growing reluctance to impose the penalty, a shift that some scholars attribute to a string of highly publicized exonerations. Even after a death sentence is secured, ongoing appeals and litigation challenging the constitutionality of lethal injection, the state’s sole execution method, have tied up executions for the indefinite future.
Critics say pursuing capital punishment amid a moratorium is an expensive gamble. That argument has gained traction as shrinking budgets and the frustratingly slow growth of the economy prompt some states to re-examine their criminal justice policies.
Philip Cook, a professor at Duke University, authored a study two years ago that analyzed costs associated with North Carolina’s death penalty in 2005 and 2006. He concluded the state would save $11 million annually by abolishing capital punishment.
But supporters of the death penalty fear cost concerns might undermine what they view as an appropriate form of justice for especially heinous crimes.
“Justice should not have a price tag,” David said. “Ask a victim’s family whether it’s too costly.”
With 46 executions since 1976, North Carolina had been among the most active users of capital punishment, according to data from the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center, based in Washington, D.C.
But recent years have seen a turnaround. Even before the state’s moratorium took hold, executions had grown exceedingly rare for several reasons. The number of death sentences handed out has trended downward since 2000, dropping from 18 that year to three in 2007, according to Isaac Unah, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The decline coincides with the state’s creation of the Office of Indigent Defense Services, which scholars say is the single biggest contributor to the drop.
The office has led to enhancements in the way poor defendants are represented.
“Prosecutors stop asking for death so easily knowing they’re going to be faced with much more substantial defense teams on the other side,” said Frank Baumgartner, another UNC Chapel Hill professor who has studied the death penalty.
In New Hanover County, the decision on whether to seek death is made by a committee of senior prosecutors, who analyze so-called “aggravating factors,” which include things like whether the crime was especially heinous or was committed for monetary gain. David said prosecutors have one month after the indictment is issued to declare if they are seeking the death penalty.
“This is not arbitrary or capricious,” David said. “This is a thorough review of the facts and the law that the legislature has set forth.”