After decades advocating for capital punishment and affirming death sentences, self-described “tough-on-crime and pro-law enforcement” judge I. Beverly Lake has come to believe that the death penalty probably cannot be reconciled with the Constitution.
In an op-ed in today’s Huffington Post, the former Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court and former state senator wrote that seeing innocent people convicted and sentenced to death had shaken his faith in the criminal justice system.
North Carolina pioneered a “wildly successful” Innocence Inquiry Commission, Justice Lake wrote, but the system nonetheless fails to protect people with mental illness and significant impairments from being wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death.
“Last year in America,” he wrote, “over half of the individuals that were executed had severe mental impairments” – even though the Constitution limits capital punishment to only the most culpable offenders.
Justice Lake identifies several reasons why people are condemned to death despite significant impairments: bans on executing children and people with intellectual disability are too narrowly drawn to include everyone with diminished culpability; underfunded public defenders fail to uncover evidence of reduced culpability; and too much reliance is placed on jurors to assess the personal culpability of defendants.
“After spending years trying to instill confidence in the criminal justice system, I’ve come to realize that there are certain adverse economic conditions that have made the system fundamentally unfair for some defendants. These systemic problems continue to lead to the conviction of the innocent, as well as those individuals for whom the death penalty would be constitutionally inappropriate, regardless of the crime. Our inability to determine who possesses sufficient culpability to warrant a death sentence draws into question whether the death penalty can ever be constitutional under the Eighth Amendment. I have come to believe that it probably cannot.”