North Carolinians eneasy with executions according to new poll

From the Fair Trial Initiative:

North Carolinians Don’t Want Executions Under Cloud of
Tainted Evidence, Racial Bias and High Cost

More than two-thirds of North Carolinians believe executions should be halted in the wake of the SBI scandal, 58% percent believe a finding of racial bias should prohibit an execution, and more than two-thirds are willing to consider ending the death penalty due to the high cost of capital punishment, a new poll shows.

Public Policy Polling surveyed 517 North Carolina voters between Nov. 19 and Nov. 21. Eighty percent of respondents identified themselves as either moderate or conservative, and half of those surveyed voted for John McCain in 2008.

“This poll showed us that people of all political affiliations have grave concerns about how the death penalty is used in North Carolina,” said Mark Kleinschmidt, executive director of the Fair Trial Initiative in Durham. “We all care about truth, fairness and efficiency in a system that hands down the ultimate punishment.”

Among the key findings were:

● Sixty-eight percent of people surveyed said executions should be halted until problems with blood tests at the State Bureau of Investigation are fully investigated.

● Fifty-eight percent said defendants should not be executed if a judge finds that racial bias played a role in their trials.

● Sixty-four percent of respondents supported replacing the death penalty with life in prison without parole or were not sure whether it was a good idea to continue using the death penalty in light of the more than 11 million dollar per year extra cost of the death penalty.

The poll came in the wake of two major events that have cast doubts on the fairness of the death penalty in North Carolina.

This summer, an audit showed that the State Bureau of Investigation, whose lab processes physical evidence for virtually every trial in North Carolina, had withheld or misrepresented the results of blood tests that would have been favorable to the defendants in more than 200 cases.

In three of those cases, the defendants had already been executed, and four more are on death row. The state is looking at ways to reform the lab’s practices, but few concrete changes have been made and none of the tainted cases has been fully investigated.

“The voters clearly told us that they do not want people to be executed unless we can be absolutely sure that they got a fair trial,” said Kleinschmidt. “Right now, there are just too many questions hanging over our capital punishment system.”

Also this summer, a comprehensive study revealed that racial bias still taints capital trials.

The study, by researchers at Michigan State University School of Law, showed that those convicted of killing white victims are almost three times as likely to get a death sentence as those who kill minorities. The study also found that black jurors are being disproportionately excluded from capital juries.

About 150 inmates have filed claims under the N.C. Racial Justice Act, passed in 2009 to root out racial bias in capital trials. Death row inmates who can prove bias before a judge will have their sentences converted to life in prison without parole.

“People want a fair justice system,” Kleinschmidt said. “People want a justice system that is colorblind.”

Many of those polled said they were not sure the millions the state spends every year on defending capital cases is worth it — especially in a time of crippling economic woes.

Duke University Professor Philip Cook found in a 2009 study that defense in capital cases costs the state $11 million each year. The study did not take into account the costs of judges, prosecutors, police, investigators and courtroom personnel used in capital trials — so the actual cost of the death penalty is likely much higher.

“We are in the midst of an economic crisis,” Kleinschmidt said. “With false evidence and clear racial bias in death penalty trials, how can we justify the costs of such a flawed policy?”


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