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You have probably seen articles in the paper recently about the state seeking the death penalty in certain murder cases, and because I frequently get questions about the death penalty, I thought I would explain the process.

Death penalty cases are also called capital cases. In North Carolina, the death penalty may only be imposed in first degree murder cases. Therefore, if a person is charged with anything other than first degree murder, the state may not seek the death penalty. And if a person is charged with first degree murder, the state can only seek the death penalty if an aggravating circumstance exists.

Aggravating circumstances are spelled out in the law, and there are 11 of them. They are as follows:

1. The murder was committed by a person lawfully incarcerated.

2. The defendant had previously been convicted of another capital felony.

3. The defendant had previously been convicted of a violent felony.

4. The murder was committed to prevent arrest or while trying to escape.

5. The murder was committed while the defendant was engaged in, or attempting to commit homicide, robbery, rape or sex offense, arson, burglary, kidnapping, aircraft piracy or the unlawful discharging of a bomb or destructive device.

6. The murder was committed for monetary gain.

7. The murder was committed to disrupt or hinder the lawful exercise of any governmental function or the enforcement of laws.

8. The murder was committed against a law enforcement officer, employee of the Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice, jailer, firefighter, judge or justice, former judge or justice, prosecutor or former prosecutor, juror or former juror, or witness or former witness against the defendant, while engaged in the performance of his or her official duties or because of the exercise of his or her official duty.

9. The murder was especially heinous, atrocious or cruel.

10. The defendant knowingly created a great risk of death to more than one person by means of a weapon or device that would normally be hazardous to the lives of more than one person.

11. The murder was part of a course of conduct in which the defendant engaged and which included the commission by defendant of other crimes of violence against another person or persons.

Every death penalty case is a first degree murder case, but not every first degree murder case is a death penalty case. In other words, there are many first degree murder cases where no aggravating circumstance exists; therefore, they are not death penalty cases.

Certain people are excluded from the death penalty: No one under 18 is eligible; no one mentally challenged is eligible; and no accomplices not directly involved in the commission of a crime are eligible. Before 2001, if an aggravating circumstance was present in a first degree murder case, the state was required to seek the death penalty. Now, prosecutors have discretion over whether to seek the death penalty in cases that qualify.

In order for a case to become capital, the state informs the defendant in a hearing of its intent to seek the death penalty. If the state seeks the death penalty and the defendant is indigent, the judge appoints a second attorney to represent him or her at trial.

A capital case is tried in two phases: the guilt phase and the sentencing phase. The jury must find the defendant guilty of first degree murder in order to get to the second phase. The second phase, or the sentencing phase, is when the jury determines whether the defendant will be sentenced to life in prison or the death penalty. A death penalty case is the only case in which the jury determines the sentence. In other cases, a judge determines the sentence.

According to the N.C. Department of Public Safety website, there are 143 people on death row in North Carolina. The last execution occurred in 2006. Iredell County currently has two inmates on death row: Andrew Ramseur, sentenced in 2010; and Rayford Burke, sentenced in 1993.

Sarah Kirkman is the district attorney for Alexander and Iredell counties.

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