Legislation was recently filed in the North Carolina Senate to restart the death penalty in our state. More than 100 North Carolina families whose loved ones were brutally murdered have waited long enough for justice.
Despite having 152 convicted murderers on death row, North Carolina has not conducted an execution since 2006. The reason for this de facto moratorium on the death penalty is a slew of legal challenges ranging from the so-called Racial Justice Act to threats of punishment by the licensing boards for doctors, nurses and pharmacists who assist with executions.
The new legislation attempts to deal with these issues and others. First, the legislation overturns the much-maligned and ill-named Racial Justice Act (RJA) by simply repealing it in its entirety. RJA is nothing more than the arbitrary use of statistics as a backdoor way to stop death sentences from being carried out.
Opponents of the death penalty pushed RJA into law. Within a very short period of time after its passage, virtually every death row inmate (black, white or Native American) filed an appeal claiming they were placed on death row due to racial bias. The General Assembly repealed the act last year, only to have Gov. Perdue veto their work. A watered-down bill later became law, but appeals by death row inmates under the RJA continued to go forward.
The abolition of RJA does nothing to affect a defendant’s right to multiple avenues of appeal, including direct appeal to the North Carolina Supreme Court and discretionary review by the United States Supreme Court, along with all post-conviction rights.
The legislation also guarantees doctors, nurses and pharmacists the ability to participate in executions, without fear of punishment from state licensing authorities. In 2007, the North Carolina Medical Board issued a statement prohibiting doctors from participating in executions, even though state law requires a doctor to be present. In 2009, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that the Board could not punish doctors who participated in executions. The new legislation codifies this NC Supreme Court ruling.
The law also forces the hand of Roy Cooper, North Carolina’s Attorney General, who has been very slow to act regarding the death penalty. The legislation requires the Attorney General to provide written notification to the Secretary of the Department of Public Safety no less than 30 days and no more than 60 days from the time an inmate’s appeals are exhausted or denied. The Secretary then has a time schedule to keep for carrying out the death sentence.
Lastly, the legislation requires that the warden of the facility designated to carry out death sentences keep a team fully trained to properly handle executions. The warden is required to report at least once a year to the legislature that the execution team is prepared and ready to perform their duties.
All of the new mandates will work together so that the state can once again enforce the death penalty in North Carolina. There is nothing glamorous about the cold blooded, deliberative murder that sent a person to death row. There is also nothing exciting about the finality of an execution. However, it is the law of the land. We are supposed to be a constitutional republic. As such, it is necessary that we follow our laws and provide certainty of punishment, no matter how unpleasant it may be.
Murder victims and their families deserve to have closure in these sad cases where another individual is sentenced to death for the heinous act of murder in the first degree. Justice requires that we restart the death penalty and carry out these executions. This new legislation will start the dead men walking once again. After seven years, it is about time.
Thom Goolsby is a state senator, practicing attorney and law professor. He is a chairman of the Senate Judiciary 1 and Justice and Public Safety Committees. He is also the sponsor of this legislation.