Cover Story: Death penalty status report

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Few issues divide the American public like the death penalty.

Thursday, the federal government announced plans to seek the death penalty against Nidal Hasan.  He's the Army psychiatrist charged with shooting 13 people to death at Fort Hood, Texas last November.

Wednesday, a federal jury here in Charlotte returned a death sentence for convicted MS-13 murder Alejandro Umana.

And attorneys for accused cop killer Demeatrius Montgomery got his possible capital murder trial delayed till this fall.

Despite these celebrated cases, the death penalty is being used less and less.

Last year the country recorded the fewest death sentences since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

Two states have abolished the practice in the last three years.

North Carolina hasn't executed anyone in four years.

Federal prosecutors considered it a victory - a jury decision to send MS-13 gang leader Alejandro Umana to his death.  And for the U.S. Attorney's office it was.

Since capital punishment was reinstated for federal crimes in 1988, federal prosecutors in Charlotte have only sought the death penalty in one other case.

That was Aquilla Barnette convicted in 1998 and again in 2002 for killing a Charlotte motorist and his former girlfriend in Virginia.

An ordeal twice over for the victim's family.

"When you wake up every night at the same time he was killed it's a very difficult thing," said Bob Allen, victim's father in July 2002.

Rarely is capital punishment used in federal crimes.

There are only 41 offenses that warrant the death penalty.  Crimes like killing a federal official, treason, killing someone in commission of another crime.

Despite all the federal crimes committed each year just 58 inmates are on federal death row.  Two are from North Carolina.  Umana will become the third.

Even in state court where the death penalty is more widely sought it's not being pursued as often.

It's been more than 2 years since North Carolina put an inmate to death.

A Duke University study found the Death Penalty costs North Carolina taxpayers $11 million a year.  And those are costs associated only with trying capital murder cases.  They require two attorneys for each side, more experts than a regular trial, a need for so-called"super" due process.

While Mecklenburg county prosecutors seek the death penalty for Demeatrius Montgomery, who's accused of killing two police officers the county that leads the state in the number of serious crimes rarely sends defendants to death row.

Cindy Adcock with the Charlotte School of Law says more and more it's being used against the most heinous.  She said, "It appears to me that the trend is toward not having death sentences for what we call street crimes.. that is murder, drugs, just general crimes."

Since 2000, five death row inmates in North Carolina have been acquitted.  Fifty-nine have had their cases retried and only two were sent back to death row, the rest got life.

Right now there's a confusing legal battle going on in the courts over whether doctors can be involved in lethal injections.  That in effect is putting a moratorium on any executions.

And that dispute is still going on.

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