In 1830, in the dusty frontier village of Detroit, Stephen Simmons beat his wife to death in a drunken rage. There was no question of guilt. The trial lasted one day, and a public hanging was ordered by the judge. Invitations were sent out, and bleachers were built for the crowd. An excited atmosphere reigned in Detroit on the day of the hanging. Simmons climbed the steps to the gallows and surveyed the crowd.
Rather than address the crowd, as convicts were allowed to do before their execution, it’s reported that Simmons began to sing in a strong baritone:
Show pity Lord, O Lord forgive,
Let a repenting rebel live.
Are not thy mercies full and free?
May not a sinner trust in thee?
My crimes are great, but cannot surpass
The power and glory of thy grace.
Great God thy nature hath no bounds
So let thy pardoning love be found.
After hearing about the execution and Simmons’ actions, some local ministers called it un-Christian, and newspapers denounced the spectacle as barbarism.
In 1828, a Michigan man, Patrick Fitzpatrick, was hanged in neighboring Ontario for the rape and murder of an innkeeper’s daughter. In 1835, shortly before he died, Fitzpatrick’s former roommate confessed to the crime. Patrick Fitzpatrick was exonerated but dead.
The story of this injustice and the finality of the punishment made a deep impression on the people of Michigan. After a decade of deliberation about the two cases, the Michigan Legislature approved a law eliminating the death penalty for all crimes except treason. It became the first jurisdiction in the English-speaking world to ban capital punishment.
The death penalty is back in the news. By the time Donald Trump leaves office on Jan. 20, his 13 executions will claim the record for the most of any president in more than a century. These deaths can be viewed as long-delayed justice, but what if the police got the wrong person? What if these individuals were convicted because they were defended by overworked rookie lawyers or witnesses perjured themselves to save their own skins?
New evidence has a way of cropping up, sometimes decades after a trial. A group called the Innocence Project has applied DNA testing to old cases and exonerated 375 people of crimes they did not commit — 21 of them had spent time on death row. The N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission uncovered evidence that freed two intellectually disabled men from death row in 2014.
North Carolina still has the death penalty on its books for aggravated murder, while our sister state of Michigan abolished it 174 years ago. North Carolina’s capital punishment has not done a better job deterring murder than Michigan’s life-in-prison rule: Homicide rates for the two states are virtually the same. The failure of capital punishment as a deterrent can also be seen in national statistics reported by the Death Penalty Information Center. Year after year, homicide rates are higher in death penalty states than in nondeath-penalty states.
Despite North Carolina’s laws on capital punishment, executions are seldom carried out these days. The example from the waning days of the Trump administration, though, should serve as a warning. North Carolina has 137 inmates on death row. Someday, in the turnover of politics, we may have a governor who is eager to follow the Trump example. Then there will be no time for either repentance or exoneration. The time for North Carolina to eliminate capital punishment is in 2021, before that happens.
— Tom Fehsenfeld