"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

North Carolina legislators working to restart capital punishment

The Restoring Proper Justice Act has caused controversy regarding the application of the death penalty.

After 9 years without a death penalty execution, North Carolina legislators have worked to lift an effective death penalty moratorium in the state.

The Restoring Proper Justice Act - which Governor Pat McCrory signed Aug. 5 - aims to restart capital punishment but has caused significant controversy. The new law enables the state to withhold the contents of its lethal-injection drugs and also removes the requirement for doctors to be present during executions. Supporters of the law say that it will allow the death penalty to function as an effective deterrent against crime. Several coalitions calling for repeal and replacement of the death penalty on behalf of death-row inmates and exonerees have protested against the law, however, saying that it raises transparency and fairness issues.

"The main concern is that [the death penalty] is a permanent punishment, it's the most severe punishment," said Sarah Preston, acting executive director for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina. "We cannot guarantee that the process is fair and equitable and there is no way to reverse the outcome."

Opponents of capital punishment argue that executing prisoners condones killing as a means of solving problems. Juries' reluctance to imposing the death penalty even when executions are legal remains a primary concern as to whether or not this punishment violates federal law.

Those in support of the legislation, however, believe that the current moratorium prevents justice from being carried out. Supporters also say that not using the death penalty weakens North Carolina's criminal justice system by getting rid of a potential deterrent against criminal behavior.

"Our 9-year de facto moratorium on the death penalty is a gross miscarriage of justice," said Paul Stam, speaker pro tempore of the North Carolina House of Representatives. "The Restoring Proper Justice Act solves one small part of the problem. Until the de facto moratorium is ended, innocent human lives are needlessly put at risk."

Pharmaceutical companies - which supply drugs for lethal injection - have come under fire recently for not revealing the content and quantity of their drugs as well as for recently botched execution, said Tarrah Callahan, executive director of the North Carolina Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

The non-disclosure aspect of the new law might run into legal obstacles, explained James Coleman, John S. Bradway professor of the practice of law and co-director of the Wrongful Convictions Clinic. He noted that if individuals are unaware as to what the drugs are, they can't decide whether or not the drugs are legal and humane.

"Making the drugs that they use secret poses questions for the public," Coleman said. "Should the public be shielded from knowing what the state is doing in its name?"

Another question raised by capital punishment opponents is whether discrimination and bias impacts sentencing.

The ACLU played a pivotal role in lobbying for the 2009 Racial Justice Act - which changes death sentences to life in prison without parole if the judge recognizes that a jury selection is impacted by race.

"The system is just broken and it is so arbitrarily applied, from one county to the next and there is no real consistency," Callahan explained.

All of these questions have caused death penalty opponents to warn that the new law may cause significant problems in the future. Representative Graig Meyer, a death penalty opponent, argued that the law is only likely to lead to further litigation and cast a shadow on the General Assembly.

"There is great risk that this bill will result in improper administration of the execution protocol, putting the State into protracted litigation over cruel and unusual punishment," he said. "There's no reason for us to even risk that."

Source: Duke Chornicle, Sept. 9, 2015

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