This interview was conducted over email with David Weiss, Assistant Federal Defender in the Federal Public Defender’s Office, Western District of NC, by Aseel Ibrahim, a first-year undergraduate student working for the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute.
Why do you think some people don’t view the death penalty as a violation of the human right to life, or to be free from cruel punishment?
The thing about the death penalty—and really about our criminal legal system as a whole—is that so many of us are isolated from it. Maybe we don’t know anyone who has gone through a serious criminal case. Maybe we’ve never been to a prison, or know anyone who has spent time in prison, or know anyone on death row. When we become so disconnected from the realities of a system that dehumanizes people, it’s all too easy to treat it as normal, or to not even think about it at all.
When I drive to North Carolina’s death row in Raleigh, it never fails to amaze me how NC State college students are walking around with their backpacks, heading to and from class. Minutes away at Central Prison, people are caged on death row, waiting to die. The seriously mentally ill, the traumatized, the innocent, are being warehoused in the most horrific conditions. We only tolerate this as a society because it’s kept out of view.
Most countries have abolished the death penalty completely. Why do you think the U.S. has yet to do so?
One reason may be our decentralized, or federalist, system of government. Each of the fifty states has its own system of criminal laws, alongside the federal government. Absent a blanket ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court, it’s a long and difficult effort to get the laws changed in so many different places.
But the truth is, the death penalty is fading in the United States. We understand today how dysfunctional and racially-biased it is. How it has no deterrent value or effect on public safety. And how it threatens to execute innocent people. That’s why nearly half the states have abolished it. Even in the other half that still officially have it on the books, the death penalty is only used in a tiny percentage of homicide cases, and it’s frequently arbitrary which ones are singled out, or driven by discriminatory factors like race or the defendant’s lack of wealth.
Why does North Carolina have the 5th largest death row in the nation?
About two-thirds of the people on North Carolina’s 137-person death row were put there during the 1990s, before critical legal protections were enacted. In the 1990s, dozens of people were sent to death row under a system that often failed to ensure they had competent, qualified attorneys. During that time, North Carolina was the only state in the country where prosecutors were forbidden from seeking non-capital resolutions in aggravated murder cases. You might also be surprised to learn that people with intellectual disabilities could be sent to death row in that era.
Once these and other laws were reformed in the 2000s, the flow of new death sentences in North Carolina slowed to a trickle. As a result, our death row is now filled with scores of people who would not be there if their cases were prosecuted today.
Why is it important to get all of North Carolina’s death sentences to prison terms before Governor Cooper leaves office?
The question we face isn’t any longer, does the death penalty work? The question is, what are we going to do about a system that we know is broken, dysfunctional, and racist? We know there is no reliable evidence the death penalty deters crime. We know it costs millions of taxpayer dollars that would be far better spent on public safety measures that actually keep people safe. We know 12 innocent men have spent a combined 165 years on death row. We know the entire capital system, from jury selection to death-sentencing, discriminates against people of color. The list of problems goes on.
By commuting death sentences to prison terms, Governor Cooper can send a powerful message that North Carolina’s public safety system is turning the page on outdated, ineffective, and inhumane practices. The Governor can show he’s looking to the future, toward a system that punishes when needed, but also works fairly and free from racial bias, and keeps all of our communities safe.