The Pulse

A quick look at the death penalty in North Carolina as clemency month continues

By: - December 8, 2022 6:00 am

Advocates will march two miles Saturday, from Central Prison to the governor’s mansion in downtown Raleigh, calling on Gov. Roy Cooper to commute North Carolina’s 135 death sentences.

The efforts complement an ongoing vigil outside the mansion demanding the governor use his clemency powers to address the disparate racial impact that the state’s prison system has on residents of color. North Carolina governors have broad power to commute sentences and issue pardons but they rarely exercise it, particularly in recent years.

The state’s death row for men is located at Central Prison. Only two of the 135 people on the row in North Carolina are women. More than half are Black; 38% are white.

White people make up more than 70% of state residents, according to the U.S. Census. About 20% of North Carolinians are Black.

Cooper’s own Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice has noted that the death penalty has a “relationship to white supremacy.” In their report published in 2020 they referenced a presentation given to the group in which Ken Rose, former long-time lawyer with The North Carolina Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, overlaid a map of executions of Black defendants between 1972 and 2020 and a map showing the lynching of Black victims between 1883 and 1940.

That racist history has been acknowledged by the state courts and legislature, too.

“The same racially oppressive beliefs that fueled segregation manifested themselves through public lynchings, the disproportionate application of the death penalty against African-American defendants, and the exclusion of African-Americans from juries,” then-Chief Justice Cheri Beasley wrote in a 2020 state Supreme Court opinion assessing the constitutionality of a provision of a bill that repealed a 2009 law passed by a previous legislature that, in Beasley’s words, recognized “the egregious legacy of the racially discriminatory application of the death penalty in this state.”

Forty-three people have been executed in North Carolina since 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Just five clemencies have been granted.

The North Carolina Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, the organizers for this weekend’s march, convened a monthly working group focused on getting Cooper, a Democrat, to commute death penalty sentences before he leaves office in 2024.

Saturday’s march, which goes from noon to 2 p.m., marks the public launch of that pressure campaign as Cooper’s time in office nears its final two years.

“I really do hope we can relieve North Carolina of the burden of having the death penalty,” Jean Parks, whose sister was murdered in 1975, told NC Policy Watch’s Rob Schofield in a radio interview published this week.

See this flyer for more information or to let organizers know you’re going.

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Kelan Lyons
Kelan Lyons

Investigative Reporter Kelan Lyons writes about criminal and civil justice, including high-profile litigation, prison and jail conditions, housing, and the challenges people face when they leave prison.