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Shades of Gray: NC's Death Row Ages While Sentences Decline

As North Carolina's death row inmates age, the justice system faces problems of caring for the population while continuing to fund the inmates' legal bills. (Matthias Mueller/flickr)
As North Carolina's death row inmates age, the justice system faces problems of caring for the population while continuing to fund the inmates' legal bills. (Matthias Mueller/flickr)
December 18, 2017

RALEIGH, N.C. – North Carolina's death row is aging with almost half of inmates facing a death sentence now 50 years or older.

On top of that, 75 percent of them were sentenced more than 15 years ago.

Gretchen Engel, executive director of The Center for Death Penalty Litigation, says the older inmate population presents a quandary for the justice system.

"Death row is on its way to becoming a memory-care unit,” she states. “We have an older and older and more infirmed population on death row.

“So then there's the question of when you execute someone 25 years after the crime, is that really what the death penalty is for?"

Engel says many of the men and women serving time on death row aren't likely to ever face execution and at the time of many of their trials, the law forced prosecutors to go after the death penalty in almost every first-degree murder case, even when they believed the circumstances called for mercy or there were questions of innocence.

Engel says maintaining an aging population on North Carolina's death row has its own complications.

On top of that, she says, there's the mandated legal costs.

"Instead of the death penalty, we have death by incarceration,” she points out. “And so we're keeping people on death row at a high level of security. The real costs come in with the ongoing litigation."

While the population grows older, this year the number of new death sentences is declining.

In 2017 juries in Wake, Granville and Guilford counties all chose life without parole instead of death.

North Carolina has not had an execution since 2006.



Stephanie Carson, Public News Service - NC