Wake County and the Death Penalty

North Carolina has 156 people who are on death row, four of whom are women. The rest are male. Even though African-Americans represent just 21.5% of the population, they account for more than half of the people currently on death row. Whether this is the result of racial prejudice that results in blacks being tried capitally more frequently, or whether there are other factors at play, is a matter of heated debate in the state, particularly in light the 2009 Racial Justice Act.

Currently, 10 people on death row were convicted by Wake County juries of first degree murder and sentenced to death. Wake has the second highest number of people on death row; Forsyth County tops the list, even though both counties are smaller than Mecklenburg which has just five people on death row.

The legal process in a death penalty case differs somewhat from an ordinary criminal case. The District Attorney is required to announce his intention at a Rule 24 hearing to seek the death penalty prior to trial. And trial is divided into two parts – the guilt or innocence phase where the jury must unanimously decide whether the defendant is guilty of the crime alleged and, if so, whether the crime is First Degree Murder. First Degree Murder is the only crime punishable by death.

The defense may argue that the wrong man has been accused, or that during the act the person was either insane or suffered from a diminished capacity that prevented him from forming the specific intent required under the law to commit First Degree Murder.

Where there’s no doubt that the person committed the crime, but merely an argument about mental capacity or about whether the crime merits the death penalty, the defense will often use the guilt-innocence phase of the trial to develop the argument that the defendant doesn’t deserve the death penalty.

Following the guilt-innocence phase, if the person has been found guilty of first degree murder, the trial moves into the sentencing phase. The death penalty is the only punishment in North Carolina that requires the jury’s input. In all other crimes, the trial judge alone sentences the defendant. But in a death penalty case, the trial judge may only impose the death penalty if it has been recommended by the jury following the punishment phase. In some cases, the punishment phase can take as long as the actual trial.

The death penalty may only be imposed if the jury finds that there is a statutory aggravating factor or circumstance, that that factor or circumstance is sufficiently substantial to warrant the imposition of the death penalty, and that any mitigating factors are insufficient to outweigh the aggravating factor or circumstances found by the jury.

The jury may consider any of the 11 statutory aggravating factors provided for in N.C.G.S. 15A-2000(e) in finding the person fit for the death penalty.

For whatever reason – perhaps a harsher attitude toward crime, a more religious disposition, or other cultural factors – the South accounts for about 80 percent of all executions in the United States. The Northeast, which is more populous than the South, but has fewer states that permit the death penalty, has fewer than 1 percent of all executions.

Damon Chetson

Damon Chetson is a Board Certified Specialist in State and Federal Criminal Law. He represents people charged with serious and minor offenses in Raleigh, Wake County, and the Eastern District of North Carolina. Call (919) 352-9411.