Prosecutors in Wake County revealed last week that they will seek the death penalty in their case against the 30-year-old man charged with killing North Carolina state school board member Kathy Taft. Taft was sexually assaulted and beaten to death in March. The formal charges are murder, first-degree rape and burglary.
The death penalty decision was not unexpected, but it comes with more than a little controversy. The Racial Justice Act passed last year resulted in 156 North Carolina death row inmates appealing their capital sentences this past summer on the basis of racial bias. A study released over the summer reinforced the need for the RJA. The researchers concluded that the death penalty was three times more likely in cases where the victim was white.
Added to the mix are the efforts to stop doctors from assisting with executions, as well as a lawsuit brought by a handful of death row inmates challenging the lethal injection execution as cruel and unusual punishment. And then there are the problems uncovered at the State Bureau of Investigation’s crime lab.
According to the district attorney, several factors are taken into consideration when deciding to ask for the death penalty. Prosecutors look at the specifics of the crime, the feelings of the victim’s family and the strength of their case against the defendant. The DA’s office has not discussed the strategy they will be taking in the Taft case.
Often the death penalty is raised as a bargaining chip in negotiations between the DA and the defendant. When faced with the death penalty, a defendant may be more likely to plead guilty for a life sentence.
Taft’s murder has grabbed headlines since it happened. The defendant will likely face a very public trial.
Resource: Raleigh News-Observer “In Taft Slaying, Prosecutors Pursue Death Penalty” 12/17/10