Violent crimes rising In North Carolina; support for death penalty waning

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Davin Eldridge – Staff Writer

While the overall rate of violent crimes committed in the U.S. has fallen sharply in recent decades, federal reports indicate such offenses have slowly begun to rise.

According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, violent crime rates dropped by approximately 48 percent between 1993 and 2016. Released annually, the report draws on all “serious crimes” reported to more than 18,000 local law enforcement agencies throughout the country – such as murder, manslaughter, assault and armed robbery.

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Justice Statistics finds that rate fell by about 74 percent during those same years. The report shows no significant increase in violent offenses, however it does not take into account rates of murder. The yearly report surveys more than 90,000 households nationwide.

Both sources find that violent crimes nationwide have seen an increase since 2016, rising by about 4.1 percent. Homicide increased by 8.6 percent. The FBI finds these figures are driven largely by an uptick in such crimes being reported in a number of major U.S. cities, such as Baltimore and Chicago.

A total of 17,250 people were murdered in 2016, according to the FBI. While the final tally for last year’s murders still hasn’t been made official, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions indicated that figure has likely hit a plateau.

“When President Trump took office, he ordered the Department of Justice to prioritize the reduction of violent crime, and that is what we have done every day since,” Sessions said. “Last year, we charged more defendants with violent crime offenses than in any year in decades. We convicted hundreds of human traffickers, arrested thousands of violent gang members, and charged hundreds of people suspected of contributing to our opioid abuse epidemic. Working with our state, local, and tribal law enforcement partners, we are making a difference and protecting our communities. The data is encouraging, because it is essential that drastic increases in violent crime not become the new normal. We are dedicated to ensuring they do not.”

But unlike in other Southern states, heinous violent offenders in the Tar Heel State aren’t likely to face the death penalty any longer.

According to the North Carolina Department of Justice, 2017 was another non-lethal year for the state’s courts, as no juries handed down death sentences throughout the entire year. Although it’s not for lack of trying. All four trials last year where the state sought the death penalty adjourned with juries either acquitting the defendant of capital murder or choosing a lighter sentence. This marks the third year since 2012 that juries refused to call for the death penalty during trials where state prosecutors sought it.

Most North Carolinians support for capital punishment has waned in recent years. In 2013, Public Policy Polling conducted a survey among 600 residents of the state which showed most of them opposed the death penalty altogether. Sixty-eight percent of them preferred replacing the sentence with life without parole (LWOP). They said they favored LWOP if the offender had to work and pay restitution to the victim’s family.

“The days when the death penalty enjoyed near-universal support are clearly over,” said Tom Jensen, director of PPP. “Across the country, poll after poll has shown that. These results show that people in North Carolina are willing to consider alternatives to capital punishment.”

In 2006 the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, a fact-finding state agency which investigates post-conviction claims of innocence, was founded. NCIIC was the first of its kind in America, and it only took four years for NCIIC to get its first innocent person exonerated. Since then, the commission has received more than 2,300 claims of innocence, and has set 10 innocent people free.

In 2009, North Carolina passed the Racial Justice Act (RJA), which prohibited seeking death on the basis of race. Over the years, a disproportionate number of African Americans have been incarcerated, and with the help of the RJA, they were equipped to challenge death sentences by proving the impetus for them was a clear pattern of racial bias. RJA was instrumental in helping four inmates getting relieved of the sentence. In 2013 the legislature repealed the law, and those rulings were vacated by the state Supreme Court in 2015. 

In the last three-and-a-half years, only one person has been sent to death row in the state, and only one person has been executed since 2006. As a result, the state’s criminal courts have seen a marked decrease of district attorneys seeking the death penalty—including prosecutors here in the mountains—the last one being Macon County’s Ashley Hornsby Welch in 2015.

The state’s death row has shrunk altogether after five inmates died of natural causes last year. As of Dec. 1, a total of 140 men and three women remain on death row in the state. Nearly half of them are at least 50 years of age, and more than three quarters were sentenced at least 15 years ago.

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