Local News

Despite capital murder trials, death sentences are rare

Posted February 24, 2014 7:54 p.m. EST
Updated February 24, 2014 9:44 p.m. EST

— 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.