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Know the facts about the North Carolina death penalty.

  • There are 139 people on North Carolina’s death row, 137 men and 2 women.
  • North Carolina has the 4th largest death row in the United States.
  • African Americans make up more than half of NC’s death row prisoners but less than a quarter of the state’s population.
  • 43 people have been executed under North Carolina’s modern death penalty.
  • Five people have been granted clemency by the governor.
  • The last execution in North Carolina was in 2006. Concerns about systemic racial bias and the state’s lethal injection procedure led to a suspension of executions.


  • In the modern era, twelve people have received the death penalty in North Carolina and later been exonerated.
  • For every five people executed in North Carolina, one innocent person has been removed from death row.
  • All total, exonerated men have served nearly 90 years on death row.
  • On September 2, 2014, Henry McCollum, N.C.’s longest-serving person on death row, was exonerated by DNA evidence after 30 years of living under a death sentence. His brother, Leon Brown, who was serving a life sentence for the crime, was also exonerated.
  • Charles Finch was sentenced to death in 1976. In 1977, North Carolina Supreme Court resentenced Charles to life in prison after the US Supreme Court declared the state’s mandatory death penalty law unconstitutional. After 42 years in prison, Charles was exonerated in 2019.
  • The innocence claims of several more people on death row are still under investigation.


  • The N.C. Racial Justice Act, passed in 2009, brought revelations of racial bias in the North Carolina death penalty.
  • A comprehensive study done in response to the law found that qualified African Americans are more than twice as likely as white people to be denied the right to serve on capital juries.
  • The study also showed that a person’s chances of being sentenced to death increase significantly if the victim is white.
  • Four people–Marcus Robinson, Christina Walters, Tilmon Golphin, and Quintel Augustine–on death row were resentenced to life without the possibility of parole under the Racial Justice Act, after proving that racial bias helped secure their death sentences.
  • The Racial Justice Act was repealed by the legislature in 2012, and the four people were sent back to death row.
  • Two other petitioners–Rayford Burke and Andrew Ramseur–filed for hearings but had not yet appeared before the court to present evidence of racism in their trials when the RJA was repealed.
  • In September of 2019, all six above-mentioned petitioners appeared before the N.C. Supreme Court seeking to exercise their rights under the RJA
  • On June 5, 2020, the North Carolina Supreme court held that Rayford Burke and Andrew Ramseur were entitled to hearings where they can present evidence that prosecutors purposefully excluded African American citizens from their juries and that racism tainted their trials. The rulings also mean that death row prisoners across North Carolina who filed claims under the Racial Justice Act before its repeal in 2013 are entitled to present their evidence in court. The justices decided the case under the state constitution, so it cannot be appealed.
  • On August 14, 2020, another RJA case was decided by the NC Supreme Court: the Court reinstated Marcus Robinson’s life sentence. It is not clear how the court’s decision will affect the three other petitioners, Christina Walters, Tilmon Golphin, and Quintel Augustine who had also been re-sentenced to life under the RJA in 2012 but then sent back to death row in 2017.
  • On September 25, 2020, three more RJA cases were decided by the NC Supreme Court: the Court resentenced Christina Walters, Quintel Augustine, and Tilmon Golphin to life without parole. The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that they had been unconstitutionally returned to death row after receiving life sentences under the state’s Racial Justice Act. The decisions in their cases are based on the state constitution and cannot be appealed.This decision marked the final rulings in a series by the state Supreme Court, which affirmed that rights granted under the 2009 Racial Justice Act had been wrongly taken away from death-sentenced people who have brought forward evidence of racial discrimination in their trials and sentences.
  • More than 100 other people on death row have also presented evidence of significant racial bias and their claims are still pending in court.


  • North Carolina’s new execution protocol, created in 2013, is being challenged in court. Executions are on hold until the case is decided.
  • The protocol was decided unilaterally by the state Department of Public Safety, with no provisions for public input. It does not require the state to reveal the source of its drugs and calls for the use of a drug that manufacturers refuse to sell for executions.
  • Transparency requires that the state explain how it will ensure that executions do not violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.


  • A series of death penalty reforms began in 2001. These laws are now considered essential to preventing wrongfully convictions and death sentences. Nearly three-quarters of people on death row today were tried before 2001 and did not benefit from the reforms.
  • The new laws include:

The creation of the N.C. Office of Indigent Defense Services, which drastically improved the quality of legal representation that defendants receive

The right to open file discovery, ensuring that defendants are able to examine all evidence, including exculpatory evidence, in their cases

The option of a sentence of life imprisonment without parole for first-degree murder, which means that juries no longer have to vote for death to ensure that a defendant will never be released from prison

The granting of discretion to district attorneys, who may now choose life without parole over the death penalty in certain first degree cases, even when there is evidence of an aggravating circumstance

Protocols for police lineups, ensuring that they are conducted in ways that do not encourage false identifications

A requirement that confessions be videotaped, rather than simply allowing suspects to sign confessions written by investigators.


  • Capital trials continue in North Carolina, but juries rarely return death verdicts. There have been four new death sentences since 2014, an average of less than one per year.
  • By comparison, in the 1990s, 20 to 35 people were sentenced to death each year in NC.
  • In a February 2019 statewide poll, N.C. voters expressed serious concerns about the death penalty’s fairness:
    • 70 percent say it’s likely that an innocent person has been executed in North Carolina.
    • 57 percent say it’s likely that racial bias influences who is sentenced to death.
    • When given a choice between the death penalty and a maximum sentence of life without parole, more than 50 percent of voters favor life without parole, while only 44 percent lean toward keeping the death penalty.
    • When offered a larger range of alternatives, including requirements that offenders work and pay restitution to victims’ families, only 25 percent favored the death penalty58 percent prefer to eliminate the death penalty if the millions of dollars spent on it each year were redirected to investigating and prosecuting unsolved rapes and murders.
    • 57 percent would support actions by the governor or by their local district attorneys to stop executions and death penalty trials.
  • A 2018 Gallup poll showed that fewer than half of Americans believe the death penalty is applied fairly, a new low. The number of Americans who support the death penalty is near its lowest point in 40 years.
  • Eleven states have abolished the death penalty since 2007. In 2021, Virginia became the first southern state to outlaw the death penalty.


  • On average, defense in a death penalty trial is four times more expensive than in a trial where the maximum punishment is life without parole.
  • North Carolina could save at least $11 million a year by abolishing the death penalty, a 2009 study found. That conservative estimate did not take into account significant prosecution and court costs.
  • If carried through to execution, capital cases cost an average of $2.2 million more than non-capital ones, a 1993 Duke University study found. Costs have surely risen since then, and most or all of those expenses are paid by the state.
  • The death penalty is necessarily expensive. The United States Supreme Court has made it clear that when someone’s life is at stake, the investigation must be thorough. Lengthy appeals are necessary to avoid executing an innocent person. The only way to make the death penalty less expensive is to abolish it.

Last updated May 2021