Though the death penalty has not yet been banned in North Carolina, thankfully it’s becoming a relic of our past. North Carolina juries have recommended only a single new death sentence in the past four years, and Buncombe County juries haven’t done so in 18 years. Furthermore, the state hasn’t carried out an execution since 2006.
Thus, it might surprise you to know that North Carolina still has the sixth-largest death row population in the nation — 140 men and women — and that Buncombe County has the fourth-largest death row population in our state’s 100 counties — seven. Shamefully, of the 140 inmates now on death row, almost 55 percent are black, even though African-Americans represent only 22 percent of the North Carolina population.
More than 100 of North Carolina’s death row prisoners were sentenced in the 1990s, under wildly different laws, before DNA testing was routine and before protections for defendants with intellectual disabilities were considered. Furthermore, no indigent defense agency then existed, and poor defendants often got overworked pro bono attorneys, some with little experience in capital defense.
Therefore, we should be grateful for the action of Buncombe County Superior Court Judge Alan Thornburg, who recently resentenced death row prisoner James Morgan, a black man, to life in prison without parole after hearing evidence that Morgan had had an inadequate defense and an unfair trial. Morgan, who suffered serious brain damage as a child, committed homicide and will spend the rest of his life incarcerated for having done so.
However, the efforts of Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams to settle these old cases mean that death row inmates such as Morgan will no longer live under the threat of execution. In addition, Williams’ actions ensure that our county’s resources will be better spent on initiatives that improve public safety rather than continuing to fight the appeals of decades-old death sentences that are unlikely to ever be carried out.
— Bruce Mulkey