Local News

Despite capital murder trials, death sentences are rare

Posted February 24

— Jury selection began Monday in what's expected to be an 11-week capital murder trial of a Wake County man accused of fatally shooting two people during a string of Raleigh robberies six years ago.

But 32-year-old Armond Devega's prosecution on two counts of first-degree murder and numerous other charges comes at a time in which North Carolina juries are returning fewer death sentences, prompting prosecutors to be more discerning about which cases to try capitally.

"We're very selective," Wake County District Attorney Colon Willougbhy said. "(The Devega case) had two separate unrelated homicides in a string of other violent crimes. It was sort of a one-man crime wave, and we felt like the death penalty was warranted."

Raleigh police say Devega killed Anthony Dwayne Scarborough – whom he knew from prison – during a Feb. 13, 2008, home invasion and Stephanie Powell Anderson, a 39-year-old clerk, during a robbery at a north Raleigh gas station on April 10, 2008.

In Powell's case, investigators say, Devega waited for her to arrive and open the store and then shot her when she couldn't open the store's safe.

Police arrested him in October 2008, and the decision to proceed as a death penalty case was made in 2009.

"We have reassessed our decision in this case (since then), and under the circumstances, we still think it's the right thing to do," Willoughby said.

According to statistics from the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, a Durham-based nonprofit that represents inmates on North Carolina's death row, the number of people receiving a death sentence averages 2 per year since 2006 – the year of the state's last execution before a series of legal challenges to the punishment.

By comparison, juries were returning about 20 to 35 death sentences a year in the 1990s, says Gretchen Engel, the center's executive director.

She attributes the decrease to a number of factors, including improved quality of counsel appointed to handle capital cases and a state law that allows prosecutors to offer life sentences as part of plea deals.

"That, in turn, I think, maybe, lessens the enthusiasm of prosecutors to keep seeking it," she said. "You're going to spend so much money and so much time and so much more than you would in a non-capital case."

Engel and Willoughby both say the time and resources devoted to capital cases are much more than non-capital cases. They cost more and the increased scrutiny of them means it takes longer for them go to trial.

Willoughby says the jury selection process – in Devega's case it's expected to last about three weeks – has also gotten much more tedious in trying to find jurors willing to consider a death sentence.

"It's a tremendous commitment of resources, on our part, to do it, and we do that very sparingly for only a very few cases," Willoughby said.

Engel also says there is a concern about of devoting resources to win a death sentence that might not ever be carried out.

Juries have returned only 20 death sentences statewide since 2006.

Last year's only one was in Cumberland County, where a jury found Mario McNeill guilty of killing 5-year-old Shaniya Davis in 2009.

In Wake County, Devega's case is the first since Jason Williford was convicted in 2012 of fatally beating and raping state school board member Kathy Taft two years earlier as she recovered from surgery at the Raleigh home of a friend. The jury spared his life.

9 Comments

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  • ecu4me2 Feb 25, 4:37 p.m.

    Where is our AG on the death penalty?

  • sjb2k1 Feb 25, 12:53 p.m.

    this is why there are so many murders...weak consequences which include room and board, TV, gym,... View More

    — Posted by arfamr1009

    this is a hilariously bad statement. find me a murderer who said "i murdered someone because i knew i'd get life in prison instead of the death penalty"

  • truthhurts1000 Feb 25, 11:22 a.m.

    BLZZZZZZZZZZZZT,,, like a big bug zapper.. POOF !!!! Vaporized ,, Sounds good don't it. No,, We need to set him up for life with three squares no work and Cable tv.

  • Hill55 Feb 25, 10:28 a.m.

    "First and foremost, the victims family must re-live the events beyond the trial as the case... View More

    — Posted by Lightfoot3

    I'm very pro death penalty, but this is my biggest worry. I think we need more checks and balances in place to make sure they are REALLY guilty and have more ways to expose corruption. by Lightfoot

    One of those checks could be a criminal charge be levied against the SCI officers who knowingly falsify evidence.

  • Lightfoot3 Feb 25, 10:03 a.m.

    "First and foremost, the victims family must re-live the events beyond the trial as the case winds it's way through the appeals." - Hill55


    We could fix that by limiting the appeals. Only consider appeals as related to actual guilt.


    "But add in the State's horrid record at SBI where they were corrupt in their falsifying the "blood" evidence of that fellow who wrongly served 17 years for a crime he didn't commit." - Hill55


    I'm very pro death penalty, but this is my biggest worry. I think we need more checks and balances in place to make sure they are REALLY guilty and have more ways to expose corruption.

  • cbuckyoung Feb 25, 9:55 a.m.

    The idea that the victim's family has to "relive" the crime through a trial is an idiotic reason not to have the death penalty.
    There has to be a trail regardless of the sentence if guilty. And, there are always appeals no matter what the verdict. And, the person sentence for murder in NC on average serves less than 8 years in prison for their crime. The victim's family is put through much more pain and suffering knowing that the person that violently murdered their son or daughter is back on the street to prey on more innocent people.
    One trial-one appeal at the guilty parties cost to be concluded within a year of the initial verdict-execute the sentence the day after the appeal trial is concluded. That is justice.

  • Bob3425 Feb 25, 9:03 a.m.

    Hill55 -- taxpayer have to take care them, the only problem I have with the death penalty is it take too long to carry it out. Appeal should be limited or lawyer have to pay for them not the taxpayer.

  • arfamr1009 Feb 25, 8:53 a.m.

    this is why there are so many murders...weak consequences which include room and board, TV, gym, free healthcare, and 3 meals per day.

  • Hill55 Feb 25, 8:32 a.m.

    I am a conservative who is generally against the death penalty.

    First and foremost, the victims family must re-live the events beyond the trial as the case winds it's way through the appeals.

    But I also have issues with the right of one human to take the life of another (same as abortion).

    But add in the State's horrid record at SBI where they were corrupt in their falsifying the "blood" evidence of that fellow who wrongly served 17 years for a crime he didn't commit.

    In this case, I would think LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE would be just.