Commentary: Death penalty as an option has lived too long

The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)November 25, 2012 

— No matter how glorious the weather – perhaps it’s an achingly splendid fall afternoon with brilliant sun highlighting the palette of changing leaves – there’s a place along Raleigh’s Western Boulevard where the mood turns gray and raw.

The men locked inside the fences and walls of Central Prison at times might even be able to hear traffic passing by on Western. But as for gentle breezes and trees attired in festive red and orange, these are pleasures they have forfeited.

Their crimes, hurtful acts of thoughtlessness, anger, greed, have landed them in a netherworld of deprivation where not a breath can be drawn that carries the precious scent of freedom.

Do the crime, do the time. That is our code, and it’s a necessary one. Imprisonment removes from our communities people who have shown their willingness to prey on others. It punishes. Occasionally – too occasionally – it may be the impetus someone needs to turn his life around if he gets another chance.

There aren’t supposed to be any other chances for the men on North Carolina’s death row, held there in the prison squatting incongruously along the scenic boulevard.

These are the murderers, 155 of them, declared by juries to have committed deeds so foul that no punishment short of losing their own lives will suffice. So they languish in their miserably monotonous routines until finally comes the hour of their doom.

Unless, that is, an appeal brings a sentence converted to life in prison without parole, perhaps even a new trial in which the state again would be forced to prove the defendant’s guilt or let him go.

Or unless, as happens to be the case in North Carolina, the death penalty itself falls into disuse – to the point where, as The N&O’s Anne Blythe reported the other day, no executions have occurred for the past six years and where, in 2012, no one has been or will be sent to death row at all.

To me, this is progress. One way to gauge that progress involves a case that has stuck in my mind ever since I wrote about it in 1995.

Phillip Lee Ingle was 31 that September when he was given a lethal injection in the weirdly shaped little room that is the Central Prison death chamber.

He had been found guilty and duly sentenced by juries in Rutherford and Gaston counties in the fatal beatings of two elderly couples in separate incidents. One problem: The man appears to have been sick in the head.

One psychiatrist who did a thorough review after Ingle’s trials said his mental issues dated from childhood and included a brain injury from being struck with a baseball bat and hallucinations in which he saw his mother as the devil.

In 1991 he had been beset by frightful hallucinations in which, for example, a TV newscaster “would suddenly become red and hairy with horns and red eyes,” the psychiatrist wrote. Neighborhood cats were threatening creatures that had to be killed. The diagnosis was “acute paranoid, manic psychosis.”

Ingle told a clinical psychologist that the murder victims all appeared to have “short horns, a tail, and red skin,” the psychologist recounted. “He felt these demons were planning to do evil things and that he needed to act to stop this.”

Someone possessed in this fashion who commits a terrible crime must be confined to protect the public. But he should not be at risk of execution. With the state’s death penalty in abeyance, he isn’t.

Dozens of people have been taken off North Carolina’s death row since 1980 because the courts have ruled their convictions or their sentences needed to be reconsidered. The margin for error in applying the death penalty according to proper standards of fairness, meaning capable legal representation and honorable conduct by prosecutors, appears to be uncomfortably large.

Death penalty cases place a severe burden on prosecutors’ offices and the court system. And as North Carolina juries have become more attuned to the kind of mistakes that can result in a wrongful conviction, they have grown reluctant to impose death as the sentence even when district attorneys give them the option.

First-degree murder these days is likely to bring a sentence that didn’t used to be available – life in prison without parole. It would make good sense if Gov. Beverly Perdue, before she leaves office in a few weeks, were to commute the sentences of those 155 prisoners now on death row. They, too, would be locked up for the rest of their lives.

Such a move would acknowledge shifts in public opinion and a greater sensitivity to the justice system’s imperfections. It would spare public resources while affirming the principle that violent criminals must pay heavily. And it would bring honor to Perdue for having stood against a punishment that will be a blight on the state’s justice system so long as it remains an option.

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