Virginia just abolished its deeply racist death penalty; North Carolina must follow suit

This piece is reposted from N.C. Policy Watch.

By Elizabeth Hambourger

“This is, as we know, a historic day for Virginia. We are the first Southern state to abolish capital punishment, but we will not be the last.”

— Jayne Barnard, Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, March 24, 2021

CDPL Attorney Elizabeth Hambourger
CDPL Attorney Elizabeth Hambourger

This week, Virginia became the first southern state to abolish the death penalty. At the signing ceremony, Gov. Ralph Northam and other speakers repeatedly referenced the racist history of the Virginia death penalty as a prime reason for its abolition.

It is not a coincidence that Virginia, the birthplace of American slavery and the capital of the Confederacy, has been at the forefront of the American death penalty. Over the course of its bloodthirsty history, Virginia executed nearly 1400 people, more than any other state in the union — and most of those executed were Black.

Rev. Lakeisha Cook of the Virginia Interfaith Center described how “early death penalty statutes in the Commonwealth reserved the death penalty almost exclusively for Black people… As extrajudicial lynchings became commonplace in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the state responded by carrying out more state-sanctioned executions in order to placate and deter white mobs who threatened to take justice into their own hands… Between 1901 and 1981, nearly six times more Black people were executed in Virginia than white people.” [Watch a video of her remarks.]

North Carolina’s death penalty is no less rooted in our own history of slavery and lynching, and it continues to bear the hallmarks of white supremacy. Our state’s modern death penalty is disproportionately used against people of color. Those accused of killing white victims are more likely to get death sentences. Black jurors are systematically excluded from capital juries. And of the twelve innocent people who’ve been exonerated after receiving death sentences in North Carolina, just one is white. The death penalty’s history is explored in depth in the Center for Death Penalty Litigation’s recent project Racist Roots: Origins of North Carolina’s Death Penalty.

The historic signing ceremony was held outside the prison where Virginia carried out its last 101 executions. As someone who has been fighting the death penalty for more than 20 years, I watched through tears, but they were not only tears of joy.

Just four years ago, I stood on the same spot while yet another Black man, my client Ricky Gray, was put to death in that well-used death chamber. We didn’t realize then that his execution would be one of the last. As grateful as I am that the slaughter has ended, I’m painfully aware that abolition came too late for many.

Meanwhile, across the state line, 138 people remain on North Carolina’s death row, and too many prosecutors persist in their efforts to increase that number. Some of the people who await their executions are my clients.

They are people who have made grave mistakes but who have worked hard for redemption. One just finished writing his memoir. Another is caring for a chronically ill fellow prisoner. Many grew up in poverty and dysfunction that was the legacy of racism, lynching and Jim Crow. All have families who love them. Their executions would not make our society safer; they would only cause more suffering and grief.

But Virginia’s reversal on the death penalty brings hope. As Gov. Northam said, punishment and justice are not the same thing. Rev. Cook called for the transformation of our current punitive system into “one that is rooted in fairness, accountability, and redemption.”

Accountability isn’t just for those we label criminals; it applies to all of us, and it begins with acknowledging our history. As Virginia demonstrates, when we properly acknowledge the death penalty’s racist roots — together with its ever-mounting toll — we cannot allow it to continue.

Elizabeth Hambourger is a capital defense attorney at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham. She represents several men on North Carolina’s death row.

In the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, let’s deem the death penalty nonessential work

NC death row
The execution viewing area at Central Prison in Raleigh, Photo by Scott Langley, deathpenaltyphoto.org

In the midst of a Coronavirus pandemic, society is forced to decide which work is essential. Across the United States, that question is now being applied to countless enterprises — including the death penalty. Is it essential for states to kill people?

Eighteen executions are scheduled between now and the end of the year in Texas, Missouri, Ohio and Tennessee. Countless death penalty trials are also planned across the country, including in North Carolina.

The courts are likely to call most or all of them off because, right now, if our society wants to kill, we must risk harming innocent people too. That has always been true, but the Coronavirus allows us to see and feel that risk more concretely.

Texas has already called off two executions. In mid-March, John Hummel and Tracy Beatty had their executions delayed indefinitely. At the time, visitors had already been barred from the state’s prisons and the nation was at the beginning of massive community spread. In those conditions, the idea of bringing together a group of people in a confined space to carry out a lethal injection was rightly deemed absurd 

What’s unbelievable is that, in both cases, prosecutors opposed the delay of the executions. One told the court there was “no evidence” that Coronavirus would affect the state’s ability to carry out an execution, a statement that reveals just how deeply irrational the death penalty is.

Had the executions been carried out, prison staff and witnesses would have been forced to pack themselves together in tiny rooms. The families of the people being executed might have been denied a final visit, or been forced to choose between saying goodbye to their loved ones or possibly contracting a deadly virus. All to kill a person who no longer presents any threat to society. 

In any situation, some people will cling to their old ideas. But in this exceptional time when the death penalty has come to a shuddering halt, it’s possible that many people will gain a new perspective.

Maybe when we emerge from this time in our cocoons, society will be transformed. Maybe we will understand that the law of nature is far more powerful than the law of people, and that the safety the death penalty promises is an illusion. Maybe we will finally see that humans don’t need to do the work of killing. 

— April 1, 2020

In California, the moral case for ending the death penalty

March 14, 2019

In today’s world, it’s easy to think politicians on both sides of the aisle care only about their own power and reelection chances. But every once in a while, we see an act of moral leadership that renews our faith in government. This week, it happened in California.

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that he would dismantle the death chamber and grant the state’s nearly 750 death row inmates a reprieve. They will remain incarcerated but will no longer live under the threat of execution. It was a stunning move in a state with the nation’s largest death row.

Newsom ends California death penalty

What’s more, Newsom didn’t just couch his decision in the safe terms of how much money it would save the state —billions — or how hopelessly backlogged the state’s death penalty machine was. Since 1976, California has sentenced hundreds of people to death yet carried out 13 executions. He also made a strong moral argument against the death penalty.

Newsom noted proven racial disparities in the criminal justice system, the way the death penalty preys on poor people, and the national epidemic of wrongful convictions. And then he described a conversation with Bryan Stevenson. “He said it’s not a question, the death penalty, of whether people deserve to die for their heinous acts. The question really is, do we have the right to kill? That’s a deep and existential question. I know people think it’s an eye for an eye, but if you rape, we don’t rape. And I think, if someone kills, we don’t kill. We’re better than that.”

Newsom also laid out the unthinkable scenario that might have ensued without his action. “What we’re being asked to do in California is to consider executing more people than any state in modern American history,” he said. “To line people up to be executed — premeditated, state sponsored executions — one a week for over 14 years. That’s a choice we can make, or we can make, I think, a more enlightened choice, to advance justice in a different way.”

Watch Newsom’s full speech here.

North Carolina faces a very similar situation. Like California, we have not executed anyone since 2006. We have one of the country’s largest death rows, made up mostly of people tried decades ago. Nine innocent people have been exonerated after being sentenced to die, and more claims of innocence are under investigation.

Our state has spent millions on the death penalty and executed just a few dozen people, offering the ultimate punishment to only a tiny handful of victims’ families. And if North Carolina were to resume executions, at the rate of one a week, it would take us nearly three years to kill all the people on death row — a macabre spectacle.

North Carolina, too, should make the enlightened choice to put an official end to the death penalty. There are better ways to do justice and bring comfort to the families of victims. And there are better ways to show that killing is wrong.

NC, let’s take a hint from Washington: It’s time to end the racist death penalty

October 16, 2018

Last week, Washington became the 20th state to end the death penalty after its Supreme Court ruled that capital punishment is arbitrary and racially biased. If those are reasons to outlaw the death penalty, then it is surely time for the North Carolina death penalty to go.

How much more proof can you ask for that the death penalty is racist and arbitrary in our state?

More than 63 percent of North Carolina’s death 141 row prisoners are people of color, even though they make up less than 30 percent of the state population. More than two dozen of the people on death row were sentenced to die by all-white juries.

A comprehensive statistical study found that defendants who kill white victims are more likely to get the death penalty, and that across the state, African American citizens are systematically, and illegally, excluded from capital juries.

If that’s not enough, let’s talk about arbitrariness.

A new report from the Center for Death Penalty Litigation shows that most of the people on N.C. death row are only there because they had the bad luck to be tried under outdated laws, before there were basic legal protections to ensure fairness at their trials. Had they been tried under modern laws, most wouldn’t be on death row today.

Watch the story of Nathan Bowie, who because there was no indigent defense agency at the time of his trial, ended up with an alcoholic lawyer who came to court drunk.

Today, after the enactment of many reforms, only a handful of people each year face capital trials. Yet, the selection of that handful remains arbitrary. It has more to do with the practices of the local DA, the county where the crime occurred, and the defendant’s willingness to accept a plea bargain than it does with the severity of the crime.

Across the country, people have become unwilling to ignore the obviousness unfairness that infects the death penalty. Last week, Washington admitted the truth about its death penalty. It’s time for North Carolina to do the same.