Lethal State: North Carolina's Delicate Dance With Death

Jun 19, 2019

There are 142 inmates on North Carolina’s death row, but the last time the state executed someone was 2006. North Carolina’s history with the death penalty is complicated.

Mandatory sentencing may call for death, but juries were oftentimes willing to acquit rather than ending a life. Governors were equally reticent, frequently commuting death penalty sentences. The issue of race is frequently at the core of discussions about the death penalty.

'Lethal State: North Carolina's Delicate Dance With Death' begins the history of the death penalty in North Carolina in the era of public lynchings.
Credit Courtesy of Seth Kotch

NAACP statistics show that while African Americans only make up 13% of the population, they constituted 42% of death row inmates in 2016.

Seth Kotch is an assistant professor of American studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author or “Lethal State: A History of the Death Penalty in North Carolina” (UNC Press/2019). He chronicles how the state went from mob lynchings of black men to legal lynchings; the transition from public hangings to private executions in Raleigh; and the decline and revival of the death penalty in this state.

Kotch joins host Frank Stasio to share his research and the role that race, the media and white supremacy play in the death penalty.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On why he chose to research the death penalty:

It seemed like this hugely important moral decision that a state — whether it's North Carolina or any other community — would make that seemed to happen in darkness and without a good deal of discussion. And so I wanted to provide a little bit of light.

On the current use of the death penalty in NC:

The state medical board also said that they would punish physicians who participated in executions that [are] required by law. Since then the General Assembly has prohibited them from punishing physicians ... There’s been a lawsuit filed by death row inmates who are making the case that lethal injection violates their 8th Amendment protection against cruel punishment.

On recent legal challenges to the death penalty:  

We had the Racial Justice Act passed in 2009 that has since been vetoed. But what that did was say that prisoners on death row that could demonstrate statistical evidence of racial bias in the death penalty in North Carolina had a shot at a commutation.    

'Your likelihood of being executed in this country is about the same as being struck by lightening, but the predictor for whether or not you get struck by lightening is race,' UNC Prof. Seth Kotch
Credit Seth Kotch

  

 On the ebb and flow of the death penalty:

The first person that we’re aware of that we have a record of being executed was a Native American person, so we [the United States] start right away targeting minority populations with the death penalty. It continues well into statehood, peaks in the 1930s, and sort of starts to decline around WWII until it sort of surges back after the Civil Rights Movement in the 1980s and 1990s.

On the relationship between public lynchings and legal hangings:

The connection is impossible to ignore ... It’s important to listen to the voices of the people who appear in these histories who tell us very clearly that there was a relationship between lynching and the death penalty. We see references to the term legal lynching used in newspapers throughout the 19th century … It’s a demand for an institutional space to harm and kill black people. And the court system responded to that demand.

On the history of racial disparity in punishment in North Carolina:

Most people executed in the state were African American men with white victims. Crimes that took place between African American people — whether it was the murder of an African American woman by her spouse or other such crimes — were treated [with] less seriousness. And this wasn’t just true of capital crimes such as murder.

On how governors quietly commuted sentences until the death penalty became politicized:

There doesn’t appear to be a real political value to it until after the 1970s when our politics start to change and the death penalty becomes clustered up with these other kinds of social issues … Then it becomes political, and you see people such as the then-Gov. Bill Clinton flying home to personally decide whether or not to commute someone’s sentence. Others issuing stern denials of sentences when mercy may have been appropriate.