Exclusive Look At Why NC Death Penalty Is On Hold

Charlotte, NC — North Carolina has not killed someone on death row in nearly 15 years, but juries across the state are still sentencing people to death. Killing an inmate is perhaps the most serious, somber act a state can perform. An act Dee Sumpter does not take lightly.

She cried to WCCB Charlotte’s Courtney Francisco as she spoke about wanting it for her daughter’s killer. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Courtney. I’m so sorry,” said Sumpter. Her daughter was Shawna Hawk, a college student with aspirations of becoming a lawyer. Her killer, Henry Wallace, has been on death row for 22 years.

“I’m begging. I’m pleading. “Please do justice. This has gone on far too long,” said Sumpter. Wallace is known as the Charlotte Strangler. He is a convicted serial killer who admitted to killing Hawk and at least eight other women in Charlotte in a span of two years. He says he even raped a mother as she held her baby. He attended victims’ funerals.

Records show 142 men and women on death row. 26 of them committed crimes in the WCCB viewing area, mostly in Mecklenburg, Gaston and Rowan Counties. However, attorneys say the state will likely never kill them for two reasons. First, courts are debating whether drugs used in lethal injections result in a cruel and unusual death, violating the 8th Amendment.

Second, the Racial Justice Act says there is a racial disparity in these cases: jurors are mostly white and victims are mostly white. The last time the state put someone to death was in 2006, according to the Center for Death Penalty Litigation. Each time lawmakers come up with a bill to move the death penalty forward, courts block it.

“Seems like, there’s going to always be litigation over whether those statutes also violate the 8th Amendment,” said Dan Roberts. Roberts has worked more than 100 capital cases. ‘That’s the single greatest power that the government would have,” said Roberts. “Part of my job is to make sure the government isn’t abusing that right: it’s following the right procedures, it’s making sure that these things are fair.”

The last person released from our state’s death row was Henry McMullom in 2014. New DNA evidence saved him. However, Roberts explains that McCullom’s IQ was in the 50s. That would be too low to even sentence someone to death today. “Some of them are very damaged people. Some of them have severe mental health issues. Some of them have severely low IQs,” said Roberts. Even though the state has stopped killing inmates, prosecutors still go for capital punishment. They’ve tried 14 capital cases since 2016. One of those was in Catawba County. He did not get the death penalty. Two others did.

The latest conviction was just last month, in April. “It doesn’t take much to reduce me to nothing when I think of her,” said Sumpter. Hawk’s mother says she’ll fight for the innocents. However, she says there’s no doubt in the case of her daughter’s killer. So, she’s ready for justice. “It’s not enough to strike a gavel, put the person on death row and shut the door and walk away. That’s not enough. Justice has not been served,” said Sumpter.

The Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Raleigh says studies calculate four percent of those on death row could be innocent.