For More Information Contact:
Gretchen Engel, CDPL Executive Director – firstname.lastname@example.org 919-682-3983
Henderson Hill, ACLU Capital Punishment Project Senior Counsel – HHill@aclu.org 704-502-1145
Durham, NC — On Monday, the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, in collaboration with scholars, advocates, artists, historians, poets, and people directly affected by the death penalty, launched a new online project, Racist Roots: Origins of North Carolina’s Death Penalty.
The project includes essays, poetry, artwork, commentary, and historical documents that place the state’s death penalty in the context of 400 years of history and expose its deep entanglement with slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, and modern systemic racism. The death penalty, the project contends, is another Confederate monument that North Carolina must tear down. [Read the essay that sums up this project.]
“The death penalty began as a way to enforce a racist social order, and as it evolved through the generations, our state never addressed the original sin that lay at its root,” said CDPL Executive Director Gretchen Engel. “Today, the death penalty is the apex of a racist criminal punishment system that cages hundreds of thousands of people and declares human lives, particularly those of Black people, expendable. The clear message of this project is: Any meaningful conversation about race and criminal justice in North Carolina must include the death penalty.”
Engel continued, “In light of all that this project reveals, we call on the North Carolina Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice to undertake serious study of the North Carolina death penalty and recommend its repeal.”
Racist Roots shows that in every incarnation, from slavery to post-Civil War Reconstruction, to Jim Crow, and to the modern criminal punishment system, those wielding the death penalty have imposed it disproportionately on Black people; valued the lives of white victims above all others; and excluded citizens of color from power by systematically excluding them from capital juries. So, while the precise influence of racism in the death penalty has changed from era to era, its essential nature has not.
Today, people of color make up less than 30 percent of North Carolina’s population but 60 percent of its death row. Black defendants are far more likely to be wrongly convicted; eight out of ten of North Carolina’s death row exonerees are Black and a ninth is Latino. Nearly half of the people on death row had an all-white jury or a jury with only a single person of color. Qualified Black jurors are two and a half times more likely than whites to be struck from capital juries. Defendants are twice as likely to be sentenced to death if they’re accused of killing a white person, rather than a person of color.
The project details the cases of some of North Carolina’s nearly 140 current death row prisoners to expose racism’s continuing influence. For example, Andrew Ramseur was sentenced to death in 2010 amid a racist public outcry comparing him to a “monkey” and demanding he be hung “from the nearest traffic light as a warning to the rest.” Rather than condemning bigotry, the district attorney promised — and successfully sought — a quick death sentence.
“It’s stunning to read these case studies. Proof positive that the modern death penalty continues the shameful legacy of racialized violence by the state,” said Henderson Hill, Senior Counsel at the ACLU Capital Punishment Project and member of the N.C. Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice. “We see Black and Latino men quickly condemned by all-white juries organized by prosecutors too often willing to use racist tropes to recall the jury’s traditional duty to protect the white citizenry. In several cases, jurors openly admitted their bigotry and their desire for the lynchings of Black men.”
Hill wrote the introduction to the project, in which he says: “As we begin a long-overdue conversation about the future of police and prisons, we must confront the punishment that sits at the top of that system, condoning all its other cruelties — the death penalty.”
Author and historian Tim Tyson writes: “White skin has always been a badge of authority to destroy Black bodies. In North Carolina, white people have exerted that authority not just through police brutality, but through mob violence, lynching, and the death penalty.”
UNC historian Seth Kotch, whose book Lethal State details the history of the N.C. death penalty, says the death penalty and lynching were not opposing forces, but two ways of achieving the same aim. “The reality of history is that both answered the same demands and reacted to the same fears.”
African American death row prisoner Paul Brown writes about the experience of being sentenced to death by an all-white jury. “I saw [the prosecutor’s] shoulders relax as each prospective juror of color left the courtroom.”
Emancipate NC Executive Director Dawn Blagrove writes that Black women have always been the heart of movements for racial justice, including the fight to end the death penalty. “Harriet Tubman led us to freedom. Ida B. Wells exposed the barbarism of lynching. Fannie Lou Hamer led us to political power. Not because of esoteric principle or moral dilemma, but out of necessity.”
Andre Smith, whose son was murdered in Raleigh, says the death penalty is another way that society throws away Black lives. He calls for compassion and mentoring for those who have committed crimes. “This is how we change the world. Not by taking someone’s life.”
Miriam Krinsky and Liz Komar, two former prosecutors, now in leadership roles at Fair and Just Prosecution, write that their pursuit of a more racially just criminal system must leave the death penalty behind. “We both became prosecutors out of a deep desire to do justice and make our communities safer — and we’ve concluded that the death penalty is incompatible with both.”
Sherrilyn Ifill and Jin Hee Lee, of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, one of the nation’s premier civil rights law firms, speak to the ways in which North Carolina could become a national leader in addressing racism in its courts. Based on recent N.C. Supreme Court decisions on the Racial Justice Act, they say, “this southern state might serve as an example for the rest of the nation to follow.”
Racist Roots is the result of more than a year of research, writing, and collaboration. It relies on scholarly writings, as well as historical documents and newspaper accounts, and CDPL’s deep knowledge of North Carolina death penalty cases.
“When we started this project, we knew that the death penalty was racist. We’ve seen how it produces disparate outcomes, how it’s used to threaten vulnerable people into confessing to crimes, how it’s carried out in courtrooms where every person wielding power is white,” Engel said.
“But we didn’t realize until we undertook deep research just how closely tied the modern death penalty is to our state’s history of violent white supremacy. The death penalty is a tool of the lynch mob and, no matter how much tinkering we do, it cannot be fixed. The only solution is to end it.”