Alexander H. Jones: Time for North Carolina to abolish the death penalty

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 18, 2021

By Alexander H. Jones

After years of appeals filed by overworked lawyers and an isolated, violent existence in a gamut of brutal Texas prisons, Cameron Todd Willingham finally met his fate.

When he did, the state of Texas listed his cause of death as “homicide.”

Over 1,000 human beings have been killed by the government since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976; the state of North Carolina murdered the one-thousandth. Public opinion on this is mixed. While polls show narrow support for the death penalty among Americans overall, most people also reject the notion that innocent lives are worth sacrificing to preserve the system. Yet evidence is conclusive that innocent people are, in fact, being executed in error — and very unequally.

A Black inmate in a Deep South state was put to death several years ago on charges of first-degree murder. Executions remain commonplace far below the Mason-Dixon line, and his death was merely a blip on the news when the government killed him. But continuing investigations resulted in the discovery of another person’s DNA on the murder weapon. The man was almost certainly innocent. So was Troy Davis, in Georgia. So was Cameron Todd Willingham. The list of names is long and growing.

Furthering this injustice, even inmates who were guilty of the crimes for which they were executed often have profiles that should give us pause about the justice of their fates. For example, an enormous proportion of death row inmates are developmentally disabled. The state of Alabama, so fond of vain public tributes to the “sanctity of life,” is about to execute a man with an IQ of 64. Those who do not have developmental disabilities often suffer from psychiatric illnesses. Texas allowed a man with severe mental illness to represent himself at trial. The man’s testimony was, verbatim, “Boom, boom. Blood, blood. Ha, ha, ha, oh, Lord, oh, you.” The state of Texas put that man on death row.

North Carolina remains part of America’s machinery of state-sponsored homicide. The state maintains a death row with over 170 inmates awaiting their deaths. North Carolina’s death penalty sentencing is also demonstrably racist. Between 1977 and 2013, 42% of murder victims in the state were Black men, but only one person was executed for the crime of murdering a Black man. By contrast, 77% of the victims of North Carolina death row inmates were white, a number far exceeding the proportion of the state’s overall population that is of European origin. The death penalty sends the clear message that Black lives are worth less than white lives.

Disturbingly, North Carolina’s capital punishment system has had several brushes with wrongful execution. According to the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, an average of two people per year are put on trial for their lives in North Carolina despite insufficient evidence that they may be guilty. Innocent people have spent a cumulative 112 years in prison before being exonerated on appeal. The state, which to this day stubbornly resists allocating funding sufficient for a “sound, basic education,” has expended $2.4 million on dubious capital cases. If the state has not yet murdered an innocent man, it has certainly come dangerously close to inflicting that atrocity.

Let us consider history. Under North Carolina’s Slave Code passed in the 18th century, enslaved men and women could be burned at the stake for crimes against their enslavers. One Black man was incinerated by the state of North Carolina as late as the 19th century. Today, the state prefers a superficial sanitary glean when it kills, using the trappings of medicine to absolve the onlookers of guilt. The death penalty, like slavery, is a horror. It is time for North Carolina to recognize the inalienable dignity of every person and vow never again to commit homicide under the imprimatur of the law. The cost to our republic is simply too high.

Alexander H. Jones is a Policy Analyst with Carolina Forward. He lives in Chapel Hill. Have feedback? Reach him at