Find wrongful prosecutions by county.
On this website, we track wrongful capital prosecutions in North Carolina. Our database is updated in real time and includes cases in which people are charged and prosecuted for capital murder, but never convicted of any offense related to the crime. About two people each year are capitally prosecuted in North Carolina, despite evidence too weak to prove they committed a crime — a practice that puts innocent people in danger of being executed. Such cases are not tracked or reported by the state and, until now, have been largely ignored or forgotten.
Many Americans support the death penalty because they believe it is used to punish the most culpable offenders who commit the most heinous crimes. But what if we told you that, in North Carolina, the death penalty is wielded against a broad swath of defendants — including those who are tied to the crime by only the thinnest of circumstantial evidence? What if we told you that capital charges are used as a tool to pressure suspects into confessing, sometimes to crimes they did not commit? What if we told you the police use falsified evidence and unreliable witnesses to build death penalty cases?
These are the findings of On Trial for Their Lives: The Hidden Costs of Wrongful Capital Prosecutions in North Carolina, a 2015 report from the Center for Death Penalty Litigation that was the genesis of this database. The report’s authors pored over case files, court records, and news reports, contacted attorneys, and interviewed the accused to find cases in which a person was charged with capital murder and eventually acquitted by a jury or had all charges related to the crime dismissed by the state. The report found 56 wrongful capital prosecutions over 26 years, or an average of two each year. These unjust prosecutions had a devastating impact on the lives of the defendants — as well as a large public cost.
The report found that, between 1989 and 2015:
- The state spent nearly $2.4 million in defense costs alone to pursue these failed cases capitally. (This conservative figure does not take into account the additional prosecution, court, and incarceration costs in capital cases.)
- Defendants who were wrongfully prosecuted spent an average of two years in jail before they were acquitted by juries or had their charges dismissed by prosecutors.
- The 56 defendants in the study spent a total of 112 years in jail, despite never being convicted of a crime.
- By the time they were cleared of wrongdoing, many defendants lost their homes, jobs, businesses, and savings accounts, and saw personal relationships destroyed. They received no compensation after they were cleared of charges.
- Serious errors or misconduct played a role in many cases. The 56 cases involved instances of witness coercion, hidden evidence, bungled investigations, the use of improper forensic evidence, and highly unreliable witnesses.
These practices continue in North Carolina, creating an unconscionable risk that more innocent people will be sent to death row. Nine death-sentenced men have already been exonerated in North Carolina.