Professor Mark Rabil tells the Winston-Salem Journal death penalty on the way out

Photo of Mark Rabin and Darryl Hunt

Mark Rabil (left), the director of the Wake Forest University Innocence and Justice Clinic and Darryl Hunt, the director of the Darryl Hunt Project, pose for a portrait at the Wake Forest University Innocence and Justice Clinic. (Winston-Salem Journal Photo by Andrew Dye)

Juries in North Carolina handed out just three death sentences in 2014, helping contribute to the lowest number of people sentenced to death nationally in 40 years, according to a report from the Death Penalty Information Center.

That included Forsyth County, where a jury in March recommended the death penalty for Juan Rodriguez. Rodriguez had been convicted of strangling his wife, Maria Magdalena Rodriguez, in 2010 and decapitating her.

“I think the signs are that (the death penalty is) on its way out,” said Mark Rabil, a former capital defense lawyer who is director of the Innocence and Justice Clinic at Wake Forest University School of Law. “Juries are hesitant to impose it because of the possibility of innocence and because there’s now the well-known alternative of life without the possibility of parole.”

Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have legally banned executions, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C.

However, Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill disagrees that North Carolina residents are uncomfortable with executions. “Instead, the decline you are seeing in death penalty verdicts is a direct result of the discretion entrusted to prosecutors when the law was changed several years ago, allowing first-degree murder cases to be tried non-capitally (where the penalty is a life sentence),” O’Neill said in an email. “North Carolinians still want and believe in the death penalty for the most egregious of crimes.”

Forsyth County prosecutors are currently seeking the death penalty against Anthony Vinh Nguyen, who — along with two other men — is charged with first-degree murder in the death of an Ardmore woman in 2013. Prosecutors have said in court papers that they believe Nguyen shot the woman in the head during a home invasion. A trial date hasn’t been set.
The Death Penalty Information Center reported earlier this month that the number of new death sentences nationally for 2014 was 72, the lowest level since 1974 and seven less than 2013. Thirty-five people were executed in 2014, a 10 percent drop from 2013, according to the report. Only seven states carried out executions, the lowest number in 25 years, the report said.

North Carolina had no executions, continuing a trend that started in 2006 because of litigation over execution protocols and the role of doctors. Also complicating matters is the Racial Justice Act, which allowed death-row inmates to challenge their sentences based on racial bias.

State legislators repealed the Racial Justice Act, but not before the majority of the 150 people on death row filed claims under the law. Four inmates from Cumberland County had their death sentences converted to life in prison without the possibility of parole, the only remedy under the law, but prosecutors have appealed those cases to the N.C. Supreme Court. The court has yet to rule.

According to the report, this is the fourth year nationally in which there were fewer than 100 new death sentences. By comparison, there were 315 death sentences given out in 1996.
Rabil said the use of the death penalty has declined because of death row inmates who have been exonerated. Nationally, seven people were exonerated, including Henry McCollum and Leon Brown in North Carolina. McCollum and Brown were half-brothers who were convicted of raping and killing an 11-year-old girl. They were exonerated after the N.C. Innocence Commission uncovered DNA evidence that belonged to another man. McCollum spent 30 years on death row, and Brown had been serving a life sentence.

“The lack of certainty is a big thing for people,” Rabil said.

O’Neill said that the families of murder victims get lost in the continuing debate about the death penalty. “The problem with the conversation surrounding the death penalty is that the innocent victims of these atrocious killings and the loved ones they leave behind are totally forgotten and, instead, the emphasis seems to be in protecting the cold-blooded, merciless murderer,” he said.

The Associated Press picked up this story, which ran in numerous publications across the nation including the San Francisco Gate and the Virginia-Pilot.