We are still pondering the Death Penalty Information Center’s 2014 year-end report. The organization found that the number of executions and death sentences decreased nationwide last year to levels the country hasn’t seen in decades. And, the numbers have been declining steadily over the past several years.
For opponents of capital punishment, this is clearly good news. Better news, of course, would be that the 32 states that still have the death penalty would abolish it and, as a result, the number of executions and death penalties meted out would drop to zero. We dare say that even supporters of the death penalty would be grateful if the number of botched executions — three in 2014 — would fall to zero.
People on both sides of the issue might be more enthusiastic about the overall results if the numbers didn’t tell the same story, year after year, about race. More than 60 percent of offenders executed were people of color; fewer than 20 percent of the victims of those crimes were black. The thing is, nearly half of all murder victims in the US are black.
The press pretty much sidestepped the race issue. It was a surprising choice here in North Carolina, because the state is still arguing over the Racial Justice Act. The act, as you recall, allowed inmates to use statistical data to support their arguments that their trials had been tainted by racial bias. The finding in the DPIC report seems exactly on point.
The press downplayed or ignored another interesting finding: Seven inmates on death row were exonerated. Two of them, Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, were in North Carolina. (See our Sept. 5, 2014, post for more information about their cases.)
Opponents of the death penalty have argued long and loudly about the risk of putting an innocent man or woman to death. McCollum, Brown and the five other men who were freed are testament to the fact that police, district attorneys, judges and juries make mistakes. Somehow, post mortem exoneration isn’t quite as meaningful as letting a man out of prison after serving 30+ years for a crime he didn’t commit.
The story of an execution in South Carolina makes the argument even more powerful. George Stinney Jr. was convicted of killing two young girls and executed in 1944. He was black, and he was just 14 years old. In December 2014, a judge ruled that the boy’s right to due process had been violated and cleared him of all charges. Just 70 years too late.
WCNC-NBC Charlotte, “3 people receive death sentence in NC in 2014,” Jan. 2, 2015
Huffington Post, “George Stinney, Exonerated 70 Years After Wrongful Murder Conviction As 14-Year-Old,” Simon McCormack, Dec. 17, 2014