This article originally appeared in The Daily Tar Heel and is reposted here with permission.
The release of a death row inmate wrongly imprisoned for thirty years has shed new light on the conflicted state of the death penalty in North Carolina.
On September 2, a Robeson County judge vacated the convictions of Henry McCollum and his half brother Leon Brown after the state’s Innocence Inquiry Commission tested DNA from the crime scene and found that the evidence implicated a different man.
McCollum and Brown were convicted in 1984 of first-degree murder and rape. Both men spent time on death row, though Brown’s sentence was later changed to a life sentence in prison.
Death row executions in North Carolina have halted since 2006 due to a variety of legal challenges, including several under the state’s former Racial Justice Act, which allowed defendants to use claims of racial discrimination to have their death row sentences converted to life in prison without parole.
The 2006 act was repealed by the North Carolina General Assembly in 2013. Still, four case appeals are pending involving the Racial Justice Act in the state Supreme Court, said Vernetta Alston, an attorney with the Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation.
Until the court decides those cases, Alston said, the future of the law’s role in state death penalty litigation remains unclear.
“It’s our position that everyone who has an RJA motion currently pending—that those motions are not rendered mute by the repeal of a law,” she said.
Lawyers filed a motion under the Racial Justice Act in McCollum’s case, but his release was based on separate litigation, she said.
Jennifer Marsh, director of research and community services at UNC School of Law, said critics of the Racial Justice Act wrongly argued the act would lead people to be released from prison.
“That is not and was never a remedy under the act,” she said.
Support for the death penalty for people convicted of murder stands around 60 percent nationally, according to the most recent Gallup poll on the issue. But capital punishment’s approval is at its lowest point in more than forty years.
And Sarah Preston, policy director for North Carolina’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said she thinks there has been national and state momentum against the use of capital punishment.
A national advocacy group called Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty launched in 2013 to push for an end to the death penalty, Preston said, and North Carolina has a chapter of the organization.
“What we’re starting to see is recognition that is sort of bipartisan—and lots of groups and categories of people are starting to recognize that the death penalty is broken in a variety of different ways,” she said. “It feels different from how it’s felt in the past.”