Making a better future for the next generation in North Carolina.

Will North Carolina Still Have the Death Penalty in 2047? Michigan Abolished It in 1847 

by | Apr 19, 2023 | Government, Michigan, North Carolina, Public Safety | 0 comments

In 1830, in the dusty frontier village of Detroit, Michigan, Stephen Simmons beat his wife to death in a drunken rage. There was no question of his guilt. His trial lasted one day and a public hanging was ordered by a three judge panel.

Invitations were sent out and bleachers were built for the crowd. An excited atmosphere reigned in Detroit on the day of the hanging. A band played and food sellers raked in money.

Simmons climbed the steps to the gallows and surveyed the crowd. Rather than address the crowd, as convicts were allowed to do before their execution, it’s reported that Simmons began to sing in a strong baritone–

Show pity Lord, O Lord forgive,

Let a repenting rebel live.

Are not thy mercies full and free?

May not a sinner trust in thee?

My crimes are great, but cannot surpass

The power and glory of thy grace.

Great God thy nature hath no bounds

So let thy pardoning love be found.

You have to wonder what the spectators were thinking and feeling as the noose tightened around Simmons’ neck and his body thrashed searching for air.

Michigan’s Road to Abolishing the Death Penalty

After hearing about the hanging and Simmons’ actions, local ministers called the execution un-Christian. Newspapers denounced the spectacle as barbarism. This was not the hanging of an innocent man, but his repentance at the gallows gave many second thoughts.

In 1828, a Michigan man, Patrick Fitzpatrick, was hung in neighboring Ontario for the rape and murder of an innkeeper’s daughter. Seven years later, in 1835 shortly before he died, Fitzpatrick’s former roommate confessed to the crime. Patrick Fitzpatrick was exonerated…but dead.

The story of this injustice and the finality of the punishment made a deep impression on the people of Michigan. After a decade of deliberation about the two cases, the Michigan Legislature approved a law eliminating the death penalty for all crimes except treason. It became effective in 1847 and Michigan became the first jurisdiction in the English-speaking world to ban capital punishment.

The death penalty is back in the news…in North Carolina this time

Although it is seldom used, North Carolina still has the death penalty on its books. Its last execution was in 2006, but 137 prisoners still sit on death row. Executions could start at any time with a new administration or court order. That’s why nearly 300 faith leaders from North Carolina recently signed a letter asking Governor Roy Cooper to commute the prisoners’ sentences from death to life in prison.

If executions restarted, the prisoners’ deaths could be viewed as long-delayed justice…but what if the police got the wrong person? What if these individuals were convicted because they were represented by overworked public defenders, or witnesses perjured themselves to save their own skins? 

Does the death penalty do what it is supposed to do?

Ideally, the death penalty would always execute the right person for the right crime — and deter the rest of us from murdering each other. There is good evidence it fails on both counts.

New evidence has a way of cropping up, sometimes decades after a trial. The Innocence Project has applied DNA testing to old cases and exonerated 375 people of crimes they did not commit – 21 of them had spent time on death row. The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission has exonerated 15 individuals since it was formed in 2006, including two intellectually disabled men on death row. 

North Carolina still has the death penalty on its books for aggravated murder while Michigan switched to life in prison without parole 176 years ago. Despite having the death penalty, North Carolina’s homicide rate is higher than Michigan’s. The failure of capital punishment as a deterrent can also be seen in national statistics reported by the Death Penalty Information Center. Year after year, homicide rates are higher in death penalty states than in non-death penalty states.

What does North Carolina’s death penalty mean for the next generation?

If my grandchild was falsely accused and convicted of a capital offense, I would much rather they lived in Michigan than in North Carolina. A sentence of life in prison without parole is a terrible fate, but it recognizes that judges and juries are imperfect people working in an imperfect system. With life in prison, there is always a chance  of exoneration before death.

If my grandchild was called for jury duty, I would not want them to have to make a life or death decision about the prisoner in the dock. Life has enough issues without having sleepless nights worrying if you helped send a an innocent person to death row.

Michigan’s 176 year experiment of living without the death penalty is pretty good evidence our grandkids don’t need it.

Like to do something about it?

A bill to repeal the death penalty in North Carolina (H.B. 638) has been filed in the General Assembly by Rep. Vernetta Alston (D-Durham). The “whereas” section of the bill makes a good case for passage by citing all the problems with the death penalty. The bill would resentence anyone previously convicted to life in prison without parole — the same penalty Michigan uses.

The bill is co-sponsored by three other Democratic representatives, but without Republican support will probably go nowhere. You could thank Rep. Alston for her efforts here. If you have any ideas for her about how to find Republican co-sponsors, I am sure she would appreciate hearing them!

Here is an organization working for repeal of the death penalty in North Carolina:

The North Carolina Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty is a statewide coalition of member organizations and individuals committed to ending the death penalty and creating a new vision of justice. We are dedicated to broad criminal legal reform rooted in restorative justice. We work with and educate lawmakers, communities, and the public about the racist, unjust and ineffectual death penalty system.

 Why not support their efforts?

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