Cover Story: North Carolina and death penalty

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Time is up for Troy Davis.  The death row inmate in Georgia was executed Wednesday night despite controversy and recanted testimony.

Davis was put to death for the 1989 murder of off-duty Savannah police officer Mark MacPhail.  And prosecutors say they are confident Davis is the man who pulled the trigger.

Any time you talk about the death penalty there are passionate voices on each side of the debate.

In North Carolina the state hasn't executed a convicted murderer in more than 5 years.  Some are saying the death penalty might as well be dead in North Carolina.

The death penalty is on the books in a majority of states in the U.S.  But in those 34 states it's being used less and less.

"It's been a major change.. it's been a major change in the death penalty."

UNC Charlotte Criminal Justice and Criminology Professor Dr. Bobby Brame who co-authored the book "Death Penalty - America's Experience with Capital Punishment" showed us the number of executions in the U.S. from the late 70s to the present.

The number peaked in 1999 and since then has been on a dramatic decline.

There are many reasons.

"States have become concerned about executing innocent people," he said.

They're also concerned about how the death penalty has been applied.  Critics say it is racially biased.  And concerned about geographic disparities within a state.

"Prosecutors have enormous discretion in who to who they decide to seek the death penalty against," said Brame.

All three factors have come up in North Carolina.

Samuel Flippen was the last person put to death in this state, and that was August 2006.

It's the longest gap between executions since they were banned between 1962 and 1983.

For the past five years there's been a de facto moratorium on the death penalty in North Carolina partly because the state can't find doctors who will take part in the lethal injections as the law requires.

In 2007, the North Carolina Medical Board adopted an ethics policy which prevents doctors from doing anything more than being present at executions.

Dr. Brame says there's another reason for fewer executions - economic.

"Seeking the death penalty is not free. It's very expensive."

The costs of seeking the death penalty are higher than often realized.

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 and a need for so-called"super" due process.

"It's hard to say it'll ever be abolished," said Brame.  "If current trends continue it will continue to be used less and less frequently."

Not only are fewer executions being carried out fewer are going to death row.

A decade ago there were on average in North Carolina about 60 capital cases going to trial each year.

So far this year there have been only nine death penalty cases that have been tried - resulting in only one death sentence.

There are currently 159 inmates on death row in North Carolina.

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