Local News

Death sentences become rarity in N.C.

Posted December 29, 2008
Updated March 9, 2009

Death Row, Death Penalty, Execution

— When a Winston-Salem jury convicted James Ray Little last month of the 2006 robbery and murder of a cab driver, he became the only person sentenced to death in North Carolina this year.

Twenty to 30 North Carolina inmates were sent to death row annually in the 1990s. By last year, the number of death sentences handed down statewide had dropped to three.

N.C. death row adds only 1 in 2008 N.C. death row adds only 1 in 2008

The decline is part of a national trend. A recent study shows death sentences have dropped to a 30-year low in the U.S. Last year, 115 people were sentenced to death, a 62 percent drop from 10 years ago, when 306 people were sent to death row.

"The fact that our citizens – average North Carolinians – are saying, 'I choose life' is very encouraging," said Gretchen Engel, a lawyer for the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham. "Jurors believe that a life sentence is appropriate."

Engel said she sees many reasons for the dwindling number of death sentences:

  • In 2001, prosecutors were given discretion in which cases to try as a capital case.
  • The Office of Indigent Defense Services improved representation for defendants facing the death penalty.
  • Court rulings stopped the execution of juveniles and the mentally retarded.
  • State sentencing reform that offered a life sentence without the possibility of parole gave jurors a viable option to a death sentence.
  • Highly publicized wrongful convictions weigh on jurors minds as they debate a sentence.

"We've had three exonerations in North Carolina this past year," Engel said.

Wayne Uber, of Chapel Hill, a supporter of capital punishment, said he thinks improved evidence-collecting prompts more suspects to plead guilty and avoid a death sentence.

"I don't judge the relative success or failure by the number of persons that are added to death row," Uber said.

He has personal reasons for backing the death penalty. His twin brother, Jeffrey, was slain in Florida over some credit cards, and the killer received a life sentence.

"I think that that man should be executed," he said, though he added that he respects whatever informed decisions jurors make.

Uber said he's most frustrated by North Carolina's current moratorium on lethal injection.

The state Supreme Court is trying to sort out a physician's role in executions and whether the North Carolina Medical Board can punish physicians who participate in them. The execution protocol approved by state officials also is tied up by a legal challenge.

"If I'm displeased, it's by the delays," Uber said.


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  • braddyg Dec 31, 2008

    Are those crickets?

  • braddyg Dec 31, 2008

    Oh yeah, and here's a link to one paper, written by a prominent liberal scholar from Harvard:


  • braddyg Dec 31, 2008

    "I'm still waiting for a link to a study that validates the crime deterrent component of the death penalty. Waiting..."

    Here's a study in logic: a dead person cannot commit another crime. Ever. Automatic crime deterrent. Not enough, you say? Here's a few more facts for ya:

    Each execution deters an average of 18 murders, according to a 2003 nationwide study by professors at Emory University. (Other studies have estimated the deterred murders per execution at three, five and 14).

    The Illinois moratorium on executions in 2000 led to 150 additional homicides between 2000 and 2004, according to a 2006 study by professors at the University of Houston.

    One murder would be prevented for every 2.75 years time on death row is shortened, according to a 2004 study by an Emory University professor.

  • Dr. Dataclerk Dec 31, 2008

    Life in prison would be better.

  • wayneuber Dec 31, 2008

    For those who question the fairness of the application of capital punishment please note that the ratio of white vs. nonwhite murderers on death row is approximately the same as that of the general prison population. Also worthy of note is the fact that nonwhite or more specifically black murderers on death row are nearly twice as likely to commit violent prison infractions as white ones. If this represents proof that more black murderers are indeed more violent than other murderers then there is probably even less reason to question why they (more black murderers) were sentenced to death.

  • wayneuber Dec 31, 2008

    Those studies which don't find for deterrence, do not say that it doesn't exist, only that their study didn't find it. Those studies which find for deterrence did. 16 recent studies do.

    Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters
    e-mail sharpjfa@aol.com, 713-622-5491,
    Houston, Texas

  • whatusay Dec 30, 2008

    Gogreen says .."The death penalty is fundamentally flawed. It offers NO deterrent to committing murder (before you call baloney, produce one credible study indicating the death penalty reduces ANY crime)."

    I say you are totally wrong..once a murderer has been illiminated he can not kill anyone else. That in it's self disproves your theory. When the problem is illiminated, the problem no longer exists.

  • whatusay Dec 30, 2008

    The reason capital punishment is not a deteriorate is because it takes 25 years. I say trial, appeal within 6 weeks, then innocent or BANG....dead.

  • whatusay Dec 30, 2008

    Crime increases...punishment decreases... I can see where crime pays.

  • whatusay Dec 30, 2008

    This does not surprise me... Look at the possible capital punishment applicants... White vs black.