At the end of each year, we reflect on the state of the death penalty and our work to end it. In its recent report, the Death Penalty Information Center called 2022 the “Year of the Botched Execution.” As we watched several states carry out grisly, prolonged, and sometimes failed executions, we were reminded again of the death penalty’s cruelty. We were also deeply grateful that North Carolina has passed another year without the horror of an execution.
In August, we were proud to stand in vigil alongside our partners in the N.C. Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (NCCADP) to mark the 16th anniversary of North Carolina’s last execution. We read the names of all 43 people executed in the modern era of our state’s death penalty, and stated our fervent hope that no more names would be added.
However, 2022 also reminded us of the death penalty’s staying power. Capital trials resumed after a long pandemic pause and two new people were sentenced to death. We end the year with 137 people on death row, the fifth largest in the nation. The results of November’s judicial elections will make it challenging for our clients to win relief on appeal.
Yet, this year was full of successes that leave us feeling more hopeful than ever that CDPL’s work is making a difference, and that we will end this barbaric and racist punishment. Some of our successes came in the courts:
In February, we saw the result of years of work to shine a light on the courts’ failure to root out race discrimination, when our Supreme Court overturned the conviction of Christopher Clegg because a Wake County prosecutor illegally excluded a Black citizen from his jury. The Clegg decision marked the first time the NC’s appellate courts have found intentional discrimination against a juror of color and reversed a conviction.
In May, we celebrated the release of Henry White, who was sentenced to life without parole 25 years ago at a capital trial infected by racism. CDPL challenged the race discrimination in jury selection, and ultimately was able to work out a plea agreement that overturned the conviction and gave Mr. White his freedom. It was a heartwarming day because all sides, including the family of the victim and the prosecutor, agreed that it was time for Mr. White to be released. He is now rebuilding his life.
Other victories came in the realm of advocacy, education, and movement building:
We released the film adaptation of our project Racist Roots, providing a powerful tool to educate audiences about the North Carolina death penalty’s deep entanglement with slavery, lynching and segregation — and to inspire them to join the movement to transform the criminal legal system. The film includes the voices of advocates, artists, exonerees, and people on North Carolina’s death row. CDPL, along with NCCADP, hosted dozens of screenings across the state this year. In November, nearly 150 people attended the film’s public launch in Durham.
We saw the grassroots movement to end the death penalty grow by leaps and bounds this year. We are a proud partner of NCCADP, and we worked closely with them on many community building events this year. Our joint efforts culminated in a December 10 march that drew nearly 200 people to the gates of Gov. Cooper’s mansion, calling on him to commute the sentences of people on death row.
In 2023, CDPL will continue its work both in the courtroom and in the community, seeking to end jury discrimination and prevent death sentences and executions. We will spread the message as far and wide as humanly possible: The death penalty is unjust, error-prone, and racist to its core.
We are set to begin a new phase of litigation under the Racial Justice Act, which could have broad implications for North Carolina’s death row. We will also continue to take Racist Roots across the state, using it as a tool to persuade state leaders that they must take action to end the death penalty. Progress never moves as quickly as we’d like it to, but there is no question we’re moving in the right direction, working alongside so many devoted colleagues, partners, and friends.