STUDIES: High Percentage of Death Sentences in North Carolina Later Deemed Excessive

Most of those originally condemned to death in North Carolina eventually received lesser sentences when their cases were concluded, according to Professor Frank Baumgartner, a researcher at the University of North Carolina.  Many of those sentenced to death received a new trial because their first trial was seriously flawed.  At their subsequent trials, the vast majority were sentenced to a punishment less than death, typically a life sentence. Only about 20% of the cases that were finally resolved resulted in an execution. Baumgartner used information from the state's Department of Corrections to examine what happened to those sentenced to death between 1977 through 2009.  He found that of the 388 people sentenced to death, 43 were executed. Of the remaining cases, 158 were still on death row, 5 had been cleared of their charges, 6 committed suicide, 19 died of natural causes, and 12 are in jail pending a new trial, but no longer on death row.  Of the defendants who received new trials, 130 were sentenced to life, 10 to a sentence less than life, and 5 were found not guilty. Another 5 received commutations to life without parole from the governor.

According to Baumgartner, this reversal rate in North Carolina follows a nationwide trend. In 2000, Columbia Law Professor James Liebman and colleagues reviewed thousands of case in all death-penalty states and found a reversal rate of 68%. Speeding up executions would only produce worse problems, Baumgartner warned, " We could certainly go back to the days where individuals were executed more quickly; we could increase the 'effectiveness' of the death penalty by increasing the rate of actual execution from the current 20 percent. But before we do that, let us remember Ed Chapman, Levon Jones, Johnathan Hoffman and the others, wrongly convicted, wrongly sentenced to death and alive today only because of time-consuming and expensive efforts to prove their innocence. The need to ensure against wrongful execution demands extreme care."

(F. Baumgartner, "In NC, only 20 percent of condemned are executed," Charlotte Observer, March 5, 2010).  Click here for more Studies.  See also Arbitrariness and Sentencing