In 2016, N.C. passed the decade mark with no executions and sentenced just one new person to death. Yet, our state continues to spend millions each year to maintain the sixth largest death row in the nation — 150 aging people, the vast majority of whom have been there for more than a decade, with no executions on the horizon.
Dylann Roof could have been quietly and simply sent to prison for the rest of his life. Instead, his death penalty trial has become an international spectacle where, acting as his own lawyer, he will get to cross examine survivors and victims’ families. Even in the worst crimes, the death penalty serves no one.
Meet Paul Brown, a man living while waiting to die. He has been on North Carolina’s death row since 2000, awaiting an execution that may never come. He makes no excuses for his crime, and he doesn’t lament his punishment. He began writing a few years ago simply to answer the question: How do I make something of the life I have left?
Guilt rains down on my head like brimstone when I think of the challenges she’ll face, knowing that I’m supposed to be there to help her navigate the pitfalls she won’t be able to see or anticipate. I try to be creative and say grandfatherly things, and hope they’ll somehow make a difference in her life. I know I must speak with assurance even though my own circumstances are tenuous.
“Thank God this wasn’t a capital case,” Barry Scheck said as his client, Darryl Howard, walked free after 21 years wrongfully imprisoned for a double murder he did not commit. Howard’s exoneration in a Durham courtroom this week was yet another reminder of why we cannot trust our justice system to decide life and death.
Death row inmate Paul Brown’s lovely tale of geese nesting in the prison yard — and how the hopefulness of new life inspires compassion in condemned men. “Having no contact with our families for such a long time — for some of us, it’s been more than 20 years since we’ve had any meaningful human contact — the instinct to care still comes naturally… Some of us are barely hospitable with each other, yet we’re all attentive and accommodating to the birds.”
Today is a somber anniversary in North Carolina. The last execution carried out in our state was on this day 10 years ago. We didn’t know it then, but that day marked a dividing line in North Carolina’s history. Before, North Carolina had one of the most active death chambers in the nation. After, we became the only state in the South to put executions on hold.
I can only remember certain sounds. Mrs. Carter was walking back and forth on Savannah Street crying and screaming “Oh God, his poor momma, his poor momma!” Everyone else seemed to be standing as far away as they could, but still trying to see. I suppose I could have been among them, but I was stuck; my eyes glued to the corpse.
Delaware is the 20th state to make life without parole its maximum punishment, and the eighth since 2008. But those numbers don’t tell the whole story about just how obsolete the death penalty has become. Another 11 states have not carried out an execution in at least a decade – and North Carolina is one of them.
Paul Brown has spent 16 years on N.C.’s death row. Recently, he has begun recording the stories of his life. Paul’s essays offer no simple conclusions. They are the record of a complicated and broken life. Yet, they speak poignantly to what it means to be human.