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A string of horrifically botched executions. States turning to illegal foreign sources and unregulated pharmacies to find execution drugs. Executions accidentally carried out using the wrong drugs. Lethal injection in the U.S. has become the very definition of “cruel and unusual.” North Carolina should continue to stay out of this grim business.

Cerron Hooks, an artist on death row, drew America on the execution table for the cover of Professor Frank Baumgartner’s book Deadly Justice: A Statistical Portrait of the Death Penalty.

When lethal injection became the standard method of execution in the United States in the 1980s, it seemed states had found a simpler and less painful way to kill prisoners after years of grisly electrocutions, in which some people caught fire, and gassings that sometimes led to toxic leaks. But in the decades since, lethal injection has proven to be complicated, error-prone, and torturous.

Botched executions have made headlines across the country, such as that of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, who gasped and struggled for 43 minutes as witnesses looked on in horror. After a doctor’s 16 failed attempts to correctly place Lockett’s IV, sending blood spurting across the room, Lockett was still moaning and trying to raise his head. State officials called off the execution in a panic, leaving Lockett to die of a heart attack. Lockett’s was just one of several horrific executions in the past several years.

Now knowing the torture a botched lethal injection can cause, drug manufacturers are no longer willing to sell states their medicines, which are intended to heal sick patients. Faced with a shortage of execution drugs, many states are turning to questionable sources or untested drug combinations—often with disastrous results.

To avoid scrutiny, several states, including North Carolina, have passed laws making the sources of their drugs secret. One such secrecy law in Oklahoma allowed a prisoner to be executed using the wrong drug. The error was discovered minutes before a second inmate was to be executed using the unapproved drug. Several states have now put executions on hold after failed attempts to find the correct drugs.

Lethal injection’s troubles are nothing new. Problems have plagued the process for years. In North Carolina, executions have been on hold since 2006 because of serious concerns about the state’s lethal injection procedures.

In the years leading up to the halt, witness reports indicate North Carolina also carried out torturous executions. In affidavits, witnesses described prisoners convulsing, struggling against their restraints, and gasping for breath for several minutes after their lethal injections. “Instead of the quiet death I expected, Willie began convulsing,” defense attorney Cynthia Adcock said after witnessing the 2001 execution of Willie Fisher. “The convulsing was so extreme that Willie’s cousin jumped up screaming.” N.C. prison officials dispute that these executions were botched, but the witness observations are remarkably similar to proven instances of torture in other states.

North Carolina lethal injection not only tortures the people strapped to the gurney, it traumatizes witnesses and prison staff, and it mires the state in an inept bureaucratic process. Time and again, state officials have proven unable to carry out lethal injection in the dignified way we expect from a government function that takes life.

In past North Carolina lethal injectins, state officials have:

Ignored the law requiring a physician to oversee and participate in executions. The most recent prison physician to attend executions said that, at some lethal injections, he was present but did not participate or monitor the person who was executed in any way. At several other executions, he said he was not even on the same floor as the execution chamber.

Lied to a federal judge about the role of physicians during executions. During a 2006 lawsuit challenging North Carolina’s lethal injection procedures as cruel and unusual, a federal judge found that there were “substantial questions as to whether North Carolina’s execution protocol creates an undue risk of excessive pain.” In response, state officials revised the execution protocol to require that a physician observe a brain wave monitor and ensure that the individual was unconscious. Two people were executed after this change. However, in those cases, the prison physician said he was not asked to read the monitor, nor was he trained to read it.

Used dangerous equipment, and lied to the manufacturer to get it. The brain wave monitor purchased in response to the 2006 lawsuit, called a bispectral index monitor, was never tested or approved by the FDA for the prison’s intended use in executions. When purchasing the monitor, the prison told the manufacturer it would be used to monitor patients recovering from surgery. When the company discovered its true use, its medical director said the monitor could not guarantee that a person was unconscious and that the company would not have sold it to the prison if it had known it was for use in executions.

Now, more than a decade since the last North Carolina lethal injection, the situation is no better. In 2015, the N.C. legislature enacted laws making the process even less transparent and accountable to the public. Under that law, the suppliers of drugs are now kept secret, doctors are not required to oversee executions, and the execution protocol is exempt from a rulemaking process that allows for public comment and oversight. Other recent laws have removed the oversight of the governor and the Council of State, and, incredibly, ensured that medical professionals cannot be disciplined if they perform negligently or incompetently during an execution.

If North Carolina were to restart lethal injections now, it would be left scrambling for execution drugs. The execution protocol calls for pentobarbital, the drug that manufacturers refuse to sell. The state would be forced to substitute other drug combinations, which have proven disastrous in other states, or turn to unregulated compounding pharmacies, which also have ethical concerns about providing execution drugs.

North Carolina should not be in the business of human experimentation, nor should it risk a torturous and unconstitutional lethal injection.


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The most serious job our criminal justice system can undertake is to decide whether a person lives or dies. Yet, death penalty trials in North Carolina are littered with errors, misconduct, and questionable evidence.

The right to an adequate defense is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, but many on death row had attorneys who made a mockery of that promise. Some defendants were represented by lawyers who went to court drunk. Others by lawyers who were so overwhelmed with cases that they didn’t even read the evidence, request key records, or interview witnesses in their clients’ cases before going to trial. Many lawyers failed to present any mitigating evidence about their clients’ life stories. In one case, the attorneys begged the judge to postpone the trial, saying they had not even begun to prepare. The judge refused, and the trial began the next day.

Falsified or discredited forensic evidence has also been used to convict and sentence people to death. The State Crime Lab has admitted that, over a 16-year period, analysts systematically withheld or distorted blood evidence in an attempt to secure convictions in at least 230 cases, including 10 in which the defendants were sentenced to death and three that resulted in executions. Five of those defendants remain on death row. Ballistics and hair analysis methods that were routinely used in death penalty cases have also been called into question in recent years.

What’s more, death penalty convictions regularly rely on evidence that has been shown to be unreliable, such as questionable eyewitness identifications, coerced confessions, and the testimony of informants, jailhouse snitches, and co-defendants. In some cases, witnesses have received relief from criminal charges or even cash payments for their testimony.

Read the stories below of North Carolinians whose cases were distorted by unfair trials, bad lawyering, and improper evidence.

Ronald Frye
Kenneth Neal
Johnny Burr
Patricia Jennings


As he faced the death penalty, Ronald “Ronnie” Frye’s court-appointed attorney was Tom Portwood, a notorious alcoholic who would later admit to drinking 12 shots a day during Ronnie’s trial. During the time he represented Ronnie and other capital defendants, Tom Portwood was involved in a car accident where police measured his blood alcohol concentration at more than 0.4, enough to kill most people. The attorney failed to do the most basic investigation into Ronnie’s background. He didn’t give the jury even a glimpse of Ronnie’s childhood of abandonment and abuse. A jury must be unanimous to impose a death sentence, and years after the trial, some jurors said they would have refused to vote for death if they had heard the story of Ronnie’s tortured youth.

Ronnie was executed in 2001. Tom Portwood also represented Nathan Bowie, who remains on death row, and Glen “Ed” Chapman, who was exonerated in 2008, 15 years after being sentenced to death for crimes he didn’t commit.

The U.S. Supreme Court says mitigating evidence is vital in a death penalty case to help explain a crime. It is unconstitutional to sentence a person to death without considering life experiences and other mitigating factors. Ronnie and his two brothers were abandoned by their father and left in the care of a neglectful single mother. At 18 months, Ronnie was rushed to the hospital after drinking a glass of kerosene. When Ronnie was just 3 years old, his mother gave him away to a couple she met at a gas station. The man was a violent alcoholic who beat Ronnie with a bullwhip, leaving what witnesses described as “bloody stripes” on Ronnie’s body.

Ronnie became the literal poster child for child abuse at police seminars

The beatings went on for six years before a teacher noticed Ronnie’s scars and the man was arrested for assault. A police chief later used Ronnie’s childhood photos as examples at child abuse seminars. Ronnie ended up in the custody of the biological father who deserted him at birth, who was also an abusive alcoholic. He dragged Ronnie out of bed to watch as he beat the boy’s stepmother. The stepmother left the home after a particularly severe beating. Neighbors reported Ronnie had been abandoned; his father wasn’t home, he was hungry, and the house was maggot-infested. Eventually, Ronnie was given back to the mother who had given him away him as a toddler.

Ronnie never received counseling for his childhood traumas. Instead, they fueled a lifetime of addiction to alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine. His downward spiral culminated in 1993 with the murder of Leroy Childress, a landlord who had just given Ronnie an eviction notice. After Ronnie’s trial, his lawyer’s alcoholism became so debilitating that Tom Portwood was pulled off another death penalty case and sent to a detox facility.

Ronnie was executed on August 31, 2001. Tom Portwood died two years later from an alcohol-related disease.



When Kenneth Neal went on trial for the murder of his estranged girlfriend in 1996, he was not the only person in the courtroom recently accused of a crime. His court-appointed defense attorney was a convicted child pornographer whose fall from grace had been widely publicized in the same rural county just a few years before Kenneth’s trial. The poor defense Kenneth received was likely the reason he spent 19 years on death row, despite having an IQ of 69. He was finally resentenced to life without parole in 2015 because of his intellectual disability.

Kenneth was convicted in the 1995 killing of Amanda McCurdy, his longtime girlfriend and the mother of his child. She had recently asked Kenneth to move out of the home they shared, and Kenneth was unable to cope with the loss of his relationship, home, and child. One of 11 children of a tenant farmer, Kenneth grew up in extreme poverty and dropped out of school before completing ninth grade. He couldn’t afford an attorney, so the court assigned him Douglas Osborne.

Osborne was a notorious figure. In 1989, while an assistant district attorney, he was caught in a federal sting and convicted of buying sex tapes involving children as young as seven. The tapes portrayed incestuous sex between siblings and their parents. His arrest received more publicity than most, because he was a prosecutor and came from a well-known Rockingham County family. In the months between his arrest and trial,  Osborne was the subject of multiple front-page stories in local newspapers, which followed the case from the initial charges all the way through to conviction.

Osborne spent a year in federal prison and had his law license suspended for five years. He finished probation and regained his law license just a year before Kenneth’s trial. During the trial, his attorney failed to present evidence that could have spared Kenneth a death sentence, including his low IQ, extreme poverty, and history of family violence. No experts testified to his intellectual disability, and the only testimony about Kenneth’s mental health came from a psychologist not licensed to practice in the United States without supervision.

Interviews with jurors after the trial proved that they knew about Osborne’s crimes and discussed them as they were weighing Kenneth’s fate. One juror said the attorney’s conviction was “the most disgusting type of crime there is” and that Kenneth “could not have done worse” than to have Douglas Osborne as his attorney.



Three days before Johnny Burr’s capital trial began in Alamance County in March 1993, his lawyers begged a judge to postpone the trial. They said they had not yet done the most basic work of defending their client, who was accused of beating a baby to death. The case hinged on hundreds of pages of medical records. They hadn’t begun to read them, nor hired any experts to help them decipher such complex information. Even as they selected a jury, the lawyers continued to plead with the judge to delay the trial, but the judge refused.

Johnny’s attorneys had been assigned to his case just two and a half months before, taking over for attorneys who left the case in disarray. The lead attorney was overwhelmed with capital cases. The other attorney had never tried a capital case, since his law practice focused on real estate transactions.

Johnny stood accused of inflicting the head injury that killed his girlfriend’s 4-month-old daughter, Tarissa “Susie” O’Daniel. He had no history of child abuse, and has always said he is innocent. On that night in August 1991, the baby’s mother left a sleeping Susie in Johnny’s care for 45 minutes. When she returned, she found the baby unresponsive and lying in her swing.

Susie’s mother told police that, earlier in the day, Susie’s 8-year-old brother accidentally dropped the baby on a gravel driveway and then fell on top of her. Afterward, she said, Susie had seizures and cried for more than an hour. Johnny’s attorneys never hired a medical expert to investigate whether the fall could have caused Susie’s death.

Instead, at trial, Johnny’s attorneys conceded in opening statements that Susie’s fatal injuries occurred while Johnny was babysitting her, which Johnny denied. Most damaging to Johnny’s defense, they allowed three doctors to testify that Susie had a severe skull fracture — it looked like “a pushed in ping-pong ball,” one doctor said — that could not have been caused by a fall. Even a quick read of Susie’s autopsy report would have told Johnny’s lawyers that the doctors were wrong. Susie never had a skull fracture.

Since Johnny’s conviction, his trial lawyers have readily admitted that they did not provide him adequate assistance of counsel as required by the Constitution. Experts hired by his new defense team have examined Susie’s medical records and found that her fatal injuries could have been caused by the fall her brother described. Doctors who testified at the trial now say their testimony about a skull fracture was wrong, and that the fall might have been more serious than they knew. Yet, while a federal district court concluded that Johnny’s attorneys provided inadequate representation, a higher court reversed the decision and denied him a new trial.

Johnny remains on death row.



Patricia Jennings and son

At the trial that ended with Patricia “Pat” Jennings’ death sentence, five witnesses testified about blood that spattered onto the ceiling and wall during the crime. When Pat took the stand, the prosecutor demanded that she explain how the blood got there—and implied that she was lying when she could not. During the trial’s sentencing phase, the prosecutor theorized that the blood on the ceiling flew from the victim’s mouth while Pat hit or stomped him. The truth was, there never was any blood on the ceiling or wall.

Pat was sentenced to death in 1990 for killing her husband, William Henry Jennings, in a Wilson hotel room. Without the falsified blood evidence, Pat likely would not have received a death sentence. The blood on the ceiling and wall was used to prove that Pat’s crime was “especially heinous, atrocious or cruel,” an aggravating circumstance that made her eligible for the death penalty. “Were they slaughtering chickens…? There was blood everywhere in that room,” the prosecutor told the jury.

The SBI analyst who testified at Pat’s trial, Brenda Bissette, told the jury that her initial analysis showed there was blood on the ceiling and wall. But she never told the jury about two other confirmatory tests, both of which showed that the substance on the wall was not blood. Instead, she lied and said she was unable to do further testing. She also did not reveal that the initial test is prone to false positives.

The false blood evidence was repeated over and over during the trial. Samples of the wallpaper and diagrams of the supposed blood spatter were shown to the jury. “Remember the blood on the ceiling?” the prosecutor asked the jury during the trial’s sentencing phase. “Was he throwing his arms in defense and the blood shot up from the defensive wounds on the back of his hands? Or did she hit him so hard or stomp him so hard that it flew up there from his mouth?”

Pat was finally removed from death row in 2013. She was resentenced to life in prison after her lawyers presented evidence of errors by her trial and appeal lawyers, as well as the falsified blood analysis.

After 23 years under a death sentence, the 70-year-old Pat was moved into the general prison population.


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These are a few of the facts about the North Carolina death penalty today:

North Carolina has the fourth largest death row in the nation, with 139 men and women. Most of the people awaiting the death penalty today were tried more than fifteen years ago, under outdated laws that failed to ensure fair trials. [Read more about Unequal Justice.]

While North Carolina still has the death penalty on the books, the state hasn’t carried out an execution since 2006 due to legal concerns about racial bias and the state’s cruel and unusual lethal injection protocol.

There are now only a handful of death penalty trials each year, and North Carolina juries very rarely vote for death sentences. Yet, North Carolina continues to spend millions of dollars a year on capital punishment.

NCCADP believes that ending the death penalty is a key part of the broader work for criminal justice reform in North Carolina. So long as death is on the table, the system will remain skewed toward cruelty — and hope for meaningful, humane reform will fall short.

Get all the facts on the NC death penalty here.

Last updated: 9.25.2020



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Losing a loved one to murder brings unimaginable pain to a victim’s family. Without question, we believe that every North Carolina murder victim’s family should get the support they need to heal. Yet, for the vast majority of grieving families of murder victims in North Carolina, the death penalty plays no role in that process.

More than 500 people are murdered each year in North Carolina, and juries sentence at most one person a year to death — meaning that the death penalty has no impact for the overwhelming majority of North Carolina murder victims and their families. In the few cases where a death sentence is imposed, victim families must endure decades of appeals, each bringing a fresh round of attention to the loss and crime. In some cases, an execution does not happen within their lifetimes.

A growing number of families of murder victims in North Carolina say the death penalty only creates more pain, both for them and for the families of defendants. Many say that the millions spent each year on pursuing death sentences could be better spent on programs that reduce violent crime or on victims’ services. Right now, there is often no funding to provide victim advocates, assistance with funeral costs, or counseling.


North Carolina murder victim's father Andre Smith

Daniel “Peace” Smith was dancing in a Raleigh nightclub when he accidentally spilled another man’s beer. Thirty minutes later, that man stabbed Peace to death in the club’s bathroom. Peace’s parents were notified of their son’s death in the early hours of a Friday morning. Before noon, his father, Andre says he had forgiven the man who murdered his son.

Andre is a practicing Buddhist, and was already teaching meditation and anger management to incarcerated men at Nash Correctional when he lost his son. Losing Peace, he said, makes him even more dedicated to his practice and his teaching.

Some people are still living their loss after seven years, twenty years—they still can’t let it go. What can you do? There is nothing I can do or say. People hear my story of forgiveness, but they don’t see how they could get there or even if they should get there. I thought my daughter would be angry at me for forgiving her brother’s killer but, after a time, she told her mom, I’m not mad at Dad. I am just angry at myself because I can’t get there. You do question yourself and ask, What is wrong with me? Is it because I do not love my son? It is not an easy path.

North Carolina murder victim's father Andre Smith
Andre looks at a pencil drawing of his son, a gift from an artist he mentored while the artist was in Nash Correctional.


I lost my son. And not wanting the guy who killed my son to suffer, this is contentment for me. I feel content. I’m not trying to get my son back, I know that’s never going to happen. I’m not trying to seek revenge. I am content. And so therefore I am able to experience some happiness as a result of that.

Also, we’re all looking for closure, if this has ever happened to us. I don’t think you find closure in this person’s death. That’s not closure. Closure is when I feel happy, and when I’m not suffering. And the only way that I know of that I can feel happy and not suffer is to wish this guy no harm. And if possible, to serve him in some way. To help him to be able to never to do this again. To help him to be able to see, God, what I did was wrong. That’s what I want to do. That is what’s gonna make me happy. That is what’s going to make society happy. Because this person will never go out and kill again. Because this person understands what that is now. And this person has a new set of tools now that he can use, that he can apply to make sure that he never does that again. 

And that is what we should ultimately want. We erroneously think that if we take this guy’s life, then I have closure, and society has closure. But it doesn’t stop the killing. Yeah, that guy won’t kill again because he’s dead, right? But there will be someone else.

If I can teach Wallace Bass, the man who killed my son, if I can teach him how to deal with his anger. How to do differently, how to become a better human being, then he will pass it on to someone else. And this is how we will begin to see a world without this kind of stuff.

It’s a slow process. But it is a process. And it is moving forward. And it does make a difference. Just taking someone’s life, it doesn’t make a difference, it doesn’t move us forward.


North Carolina murder victim's mother Lynda Simmons
The last photo Lynda Simmons has of her son, Brian Eddie Colletti

In 2004, my beautiful son Brian was senselessly murdered in Wilmington. He was 24.

I’m not a supporter of the death penalty. I believe all life is sacred and it’s not up to me to decide who lives or dies. Through my experience, I realized Brian’s family and friends were not the only victims in our case. The courtroom was filled with victims from both sides at the sentencing hearing; people struggling with the devastation of homicide who became victims through no choice of their own. My heart went out to the mother and grandmother of my son’s murderer; I would never want them to suffer as I have. There are other ways to hold offenders accountable within the justice system, and for me, accountability is the key to justice.

What’s more, capital cases often take many years to resolve. Each time there’s another legal proceeding, family members are subjected to more heart-rending testimony and news headlines.

Hanging over it all is the threat that our imperfect system will execute an innocent person. This isn’t a possibility; it has happened, more than once and one innocent life is one too many. How does that awful prospect honor the memories of our lost children?

We can honor the victims by shifting our priority to the families left behind, lending support as they navigate this often hostile and confusing journey. We need more resources to help those profoundly affected by crime, expand our view of victims to include the family and friends of the offender as well. We need to stop the process of re-victimizing those whose grief is only complicated by the legal process.

So much money, time and resources are put into the death penalty that could be better used to serve victims in their healing. It’s in our personal healing where crime prevention begins and solutions are found.


In this audio clip, Lynda shares her experience addressing James, the young man who murdered her son, at James’ sentencing hearing:

North Carolina murder victim's mother Lynda Simmons
A heartfelt letter to Lynda from a man on death row

Listen to Lynda read the letter she received from Alim, a man on North Carolina’s death row.

Lynda Simmons and Jon Powell. Jon directs Campbell Law’s Restorative Justice Clinic in Raleigh


Excerpts from Lynda Simmons’ 2015 letter to Citizen Times


North Carolina murder victim's brother Pat McCoy
Pat McCoy at the Capital Restorative Justice Project’s annual gathering

My sister, Kathy Lu McCoy, was abducted off of the streets of Spokane, Washington in 1974, and found murdered several hours later. The crime was extremely brutal, and her last few hours of life were hell on earth.

Her killer, Harry Edward Brooks, was apprehended shortly after she was found, received a life sentence, and remains in prison 41 years later.

While not a hate crime by legal definition, it was a hate crime, similar to the thousands of homicides, and tens of thousands of rapes and other violent acts, committed against women each year simply because they are women. The inability of women to move about independently without having extra fear of violence because of their gender remains a great civil rights problem.

The cruelty of the crime against my sister made me feel, among other emotions, a visceral desire for retribution. It did not, however, change my opposition to, or my family’s opposition to, the death penalty.

Those who have lost loved ones to violence of course have every right to feel however they do about that crime, and about what the fate of their loved one’s killer should be. Among life’s nightmares, such outrageous injustice ranks at the top for horror and damage from which there is no full recovery.

When a killer targets victims because of their race, sexual orientation, gender, religion, or other reasons motivated solely by hatred, that nightmare is even worse, because it rips the very fabric that binds us together as a nation and a people, and does violence to us all, never mind the added layer of violence to the victims’ survivors. There are no adequate words for such crimes against humanity.

We hang on to the death penalty as a deterrent, with no persuasive evidence that it deters, and out of moral outrage and a belief that some crimes cannot be adequately punished without it. The logic and sentiment here make sense, but they do not make the death penalty any less imperfect in the way we employ it. It’s bad public policy, in large part because it contains too many of the same biases and flaws that killers who receive it do. More and more people, including many family members of murder victims, hope we will stop using it, and make that fabric of our society stronger by doing so. My family and I are among them.


This article was originally posted in the Charlotte Observer on June 21, 2016: My sister’s murder and the death penalty.



North Carolina murder victim's sister Jean Parks
Jean, holding a photograph of her sister, Betsy. Photo by Jean’s husband, Art Grand


Jean Parks is an Asheville psychologist whose sister, Betsy Rosenberg, was murdered in 1975. Betsy was a student at NC State at the time; Jean was attending Davidson College. The man convicted of killing Betsy is currently serving a life sentence; he has maintained his innocence.

I discovered that I opposed the death penalty while at a Parents of Murdered Children support group meeting in Texas. Someone from the Department of Corrections was explaining that they allow victim family members to observe executions, and that when they do, the families visit the prison the day before to get a sense of the layout. “A staff member is always with them,” he said, “offering coffee, donuts, and assistance.” The speaker then paused, and almost as an afterthought, said, “we don’t do anything for the families of the condemned.” Families of the condemned. I immediately began imagining what it would be like to have a loved one about to be executed by the state, knowing there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it; the feelings I imagined were so similar to what my family experienced after Betsy was killed: grief, rage, helplessness. I was horrified to think that our state, “We the People,” is using a form of punishment that creates new grieving families unnecessarily.

From there, I learned more about the death penalty, and more reasons to oppose it: racial inequities, how it’s administered, the prolonged process of appeals that hurts the victims’ families all over again, the economic demands it places on our society, and, of course, the fact that innocent people have been executed. On top of that, for so many, there’s just no real closure.

Once I understood that many people are surprised when a murder victim family member opposes the death penalty, I’ve spoken up for reform, then repeal of the death penalty in North Carolina. I’ve met with a governor, spoken to legislators and written lots of letters to the editors of different newspapers. I’ve also worked to forgive the man convicted of killing my sister. I recently found out, however, that he is maintaining his innocence. I don’t know how to forgive a nameless person, one whose story I don’t know.

If you believe North Carolina needs the death penalty, imagine your father, mother, brother, sister or child has been sentenced to death. Next, imagine your loved one is innocent, but you can’t prove it. An execution date has been set. Do you think we need the death penalty now?



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On the Row at Home features the voices and experiences of loved ones across North Carolina who do time outside, alongside their family members on the inside.

The death penalty doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It does irreparable damage to families who must live with the threat that their child, parent, spouse, or sibling will be executed. These innocent people are the unintended casualties of a punishment that only increases the reach of violence and grief.

Many family members spend year after year in limbo, hoping for a successful appeal or a grant of clemency, dreading an execution date. Some travel long distances to visit, while others make do with letters and calls. Some lose touch. The result is more broken and traumatized families.

In some cases, an execution victimizes the same family twice — such as in the case of Elias Syriani, who was executed in 2005 despite the pleas of his adult children to spare his life. Elias murdered their mother, but years after her death, the adult children began to rebuild a relationship with their father and find healing. They spent his last hours with him before he was killed by lethal injection.

Note: Some families, concerned about endangering their loved one or unwittingly disrupting legal appeals, have asked to remain anonymous.



At age 19, Cerron Hooks was charged with murder. Two years later, he was sentenced to death. While he’s grown up on death row, his family has marked time on the outside.



His niece, Kayla, was two months old when Cerron was arrested; he calls her his timeline. In her teenage years, Kayla has struggled with severe depression and anxiety. On her 16th birthday, she received in the mail a drawing from her uncle. It said: May today’s tears water the seeds of tomorrow’s happiness. I am forever in your corner.

Even from death row, Kayla said, he has given me life. He’s helped me keep going.

Brenda was a teenager when she had Cerron. She said they grew up together: He was my baby, my son, my best friend. He’s now been on the row for half his life.

It’s been nearly twenty years since Brenda has truly seen her son. While she, Kayla, and their family friend Gale visit often, the prison’s visitation rooms separate the visitors from the loved ones with wire, bars, and a thick, scuffed glass that reflects glare from overhead lights. In order to see through the glass to her son, seated less than two feet away, Brenda must position her body to block the light, lining up her reflection with Cerron’s face, looking through her own face to see glimpses of his.

Cerron’s drawing on Professor Baumgartner’s book

Shortly after her son was sentenced, Brenda got a tattoo over her heart: First Born, it reads. The ink, now nearly twenty years old, has begun to blur and fade.

Cerron’s drawing of America on the execution table is the cover image on Professor Frank Baumgartner’s book Deadly Justice: A Statistical Portrait of the Death Penalty. Cerron began drawing in high school. His art is his voice, Kayla says. You can’t look at his drawings and not see a human being behind them.



You can’t go back to your old life and you can’t go forward. 

Have you ever felt guilty about eating an M&M? About sitting outside? Watching the sun set, a bird fly, a flower bloom? 

What else can they do to us? They’ve destroyed us; they’ve destroyed him.

This is a hell on earth.



Tawana’s son, Quintel Augustine, has been on death row since 2002. She has boxes full of the letters and cards he’s sent her over the last sixteen years. Mother’s Day cards, letters after his grandmother passed, birthday cards, notes to pass on to his nieces and nephews. Letters of loss and longing and hope. They write to keep each other going forward, putting one foot in front of the other, while living under the threat of death.

You are in here, she tells him often, but you are not a part of this. This is not you. You just have to learn how to adapt until it’s time for you to be set free.

Nobody has ever seen me cry or break, but my husband, she said. Because I’m trying to hold up for everybody else… I’m the strong person trying to holding up, but when I get by myself I break. You know, I’m up in the middle of the night ’cause I’m crying, I’m missing him. I want to talk to him. I want to hold him. I want to touch him.

So, those are the things we go through with our loved ones being on death row.

It’s heartbreaking. He missed out on a lot of family things. Sometimes we don’t want to do nothing because he wasn’t here. It was times that we had family functions and I said, This is Quintel’s seat. Nobody sit there. When I go to church, I take his picture and I say This seat is taken. He’s sitting right here by me.



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In 2018, Washington became the eighth state to repeal the death penalty since 2007. Twenty states now ban executions, and more repeal campaigns are underway. These efforts are a clear sign of a precipitous decline in public support for the death penalty. A 2018 Gallup poll showed that fewer than half of Americans believe the death penalty is applied fairly and support for the punishment is at historic lows.


North Carolina’s last execution was in 2006. In recent years, fewer prosecutors are seeking the death penalty and, when they do, fewer juries are supporting it.

In 2012, 2015, 2017 and 2018, no one was sentenced to death in North Carolina. In Wake County, home to Raleigh and once among the state’s top death-sentencing counties, juries have rejected the death penalty at multiple recent capital trials.


A 2017 poll of Wake County voters found strong evidence that death penalty support is waning. More than 60 percent said they would favor replacing the death penalty with life without parole, and nearly 70 percent said they would support a decision by the Wake County district attorney to stop seeking the death penalty at trial. More than half said the death penalty was applied unfairly, and 48 percent believed an innocent person had likely already been executed.

2013 poll of North Carolina voters also showed that a majority of people favor life sentences over executions:

  • 68 percent favored replacing the death penalty with life in prison without parole if offenders were required to work and pay restitution to their victims’ families. As long as they are on death row, inmates cannot earn money to pay off their debts.
  • 63 percent supported ending the death penalty if the money spent on capital punishment were redirected to crime fighting.
  • 55 percent supported ending the death penalty if the money were spent on solving cold cases and victim services.


During the period since executions stopped in North Carolina, five death-sentenced men have been exonerated and released, bringing the total number of innocent people sentenced to die in North Carolina to nine.


The State Bureau of Investigation has also admitted to falsifying or mischaracterizing forensic evidence in hundreds of trials, including capital ones.

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