Trial Briefs

CDPL Project Focuses on Racist Origins of NC’s Death Penalty

November 24, 2020   |   Henderson Hill

Editor’s note: The Center for Death Penalty Litigation recently unveiled the project Racist Roots at NCAJ was among the filers of an amicus brief in support of the defendant-appellant in State v. Ramseur, one of the cases highlighted in the project. Below, find the introduction to the project by Henderson Hill, which appears in the fall edition of Trial Briefs, and on the Racist Roots project site.

Racist Roots is a project of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in collaboration with scholars, advocates, artists, historians, poets, and people directly affected by the death penalty. It aims to place North Carolina’s modern death penalty within the context of 400 years of history and to expose its deep entanglement with the aims of white supremacy.

Racist Roots begins by highlighting the ways racism continues to infect our state’s death penalty, through the case of Andrew Ramseur, a young Black man who was tried and sentenced to death in North Carolina in 2010 amid racist cries comparing him to a “monkey” and demanding he be hung “from the nearest traffic light as a warning to the rest.” It then takes the reader back to the days of slavery and — through historical scholarship, profiles of modern capital cases, and commentary from those closest to the death penalty system — demonstrates that an institution begun in America to control enslaved people, and later refashioned to terrorize freed Black citizens, never broke from its racist past.

In every incarnation, from slavery, to post-Civil War Reconstruction, to Jim Crow, to the criminal punishment system today, those wielding the death penalty have imposed it disproportionately on Black citizens; valued the lives of white victims over Black; and excluded Black citizens from positions of power by systematically keeping them off capital juries. Thus, while the precise influence of racism in the death penalty may have changed from era to era, its essential nature never has.

Racist Roots follows this centuries-long dance between racism, the death penalty, and our government’s failed efforts to break the two apart. In view of this failure, the Racist Roots project ultimately calls on North Carolina to never again assert the state’s power to kill a human being in the name of justice.

Another Confederate Monument We Must Tear Down

Right now, our nation is in a moment of reckoning with our criminal punishment system. We are finally seeing clearly what should have been obvious long ago: The system has its knee on the necks of Black people.

In North Carolina, as we begin a long-overdue conversation about the future of police and prisons, we must confront the punishment that sits at the top of that system, condoning all its other cruelties — the death penalty.

When citizens have acclimated to the state strapping a defenseless person to a gurney and killing them in front of an audience, it becomes harder to shock them. The death penalty teaches a cruel and inhumane lesson: As long as we brand people as criminals, we can kill them.

Meanwhile, there is absolutely no evidence that capital punishment enhances public safety or prevents crime. Instead, it creates more violence and pain, more parentless children and grieving families. I’ve seen this trauma up close as an attorney representing people on death row. Although it’s been more than 20 years since North Carolina executed Dawud Abdullah Muhammad, I can still barely bring myself to recall the searing conversation with Dawud’s daughter at 2:30 in the morning minutes after she and I watched her father killed before our eyes. Dawud was African American. All of the jurors who convicted him were white, and none of them knew that the prosecutor, known for his contempt of Black people, had hidden evidence pointing to Dawud’s innocence.

The race-based problems with North Carolina’s modern death penalty are by now well documented, if not well known. Of 10 innocent men wrongfully sent to North Carolina’s death row, nine are people of color. Sophisticated statistical studies show conclusively that our state’s death penalty values white lives over Black because death sentences are sought and imposed at far greater rates in cases with white victims. Similar studies show that, for decades, North Carolina prosecutors have struck Black citizens from capital juries at far greater rates than white citizens.

Meanwhile, the North Carolina appellate courts sat on their hands, reviewing nearly 200 cases raising questions about racist jury selection, but never once in 30 years finding that discrimination occurred. North Carolina has the only court system in the South with such a deplorable record.

It’s long past time for us to examine the reasons for these daily cruelties in today’s death penalty. They did not arise by accident. As the Rev. William Barber has written, they are the natural consequence of a history in which racism, white supremacy, and the death penalty are as intertwined as the ropes of the lynch man’s noose.

From America’s earliest days, the death penalty was used primarily to enforce the domination and control of Black people. At first, it was employed to punish enslaved people and strike fear into the hearts of others. After Reconstruction, it became the primary tool for enforcing Jim Crow, working alongside lynching to kill almost exclusively Black people accused of crimes against white people — and it did so with terrifying efficiency. In North Carolina, nearly 80 percent of the people executed by the state from 1910 to 1961 were Black.

Today, the death penalty remains a tool wielded almost entirely by white judges, prosecutors, and jurors, most of whom have yet to acknowledge the punishment’s racist beginnings. It is still used most often to punish defendants of color for crimes against white people. Perhaps most egregious, our modern death penalty is built on the U.S. Supreme Court’s explicitly declared acceptance of the notion that the death penalty is needed to channel white society’s lynch mob mentality, and that racial disparities in death penalty cases are an inevitability the high court has no responsibility to address. I firmly believe that North Carolina can be better than this, and that we must.

As the Center for Death Penalty Litigation writes in its timely new project, Racist Roots: Origins of North Carolina’s Death Penalty:

Certainly, the death penalty looks different today than it did in the past. In the 19th century, executions were carried out by county sheriffs on public hanging grounds. Thousands of white spectators traveled to picnic, drink, and cheer the death of a Black man at the end of a noose. In the early 20th century, as North Carolina sought to burnish its reputation in a modernizing world, the death penalty became more controlled and sanitized. The state took over executions and hid them behind the walls of Raleigh’s Central Prison. It worked to find new methods of killing that were less gruesome for spectators. It built an electric chair, then a gas chamber, and then moved to the sterile and medicalized injection of poison into the veins of a prisoner strapped to a gurney and draped with a clean, white sheet. But the goal was always to preserve the death penalty, to disguise its true motives and its brutality. The goal was never to root out and destroy the racism on which it feeds.

In what we call the “modern” era, the death penalty continues to achieve exactly what it was intended to do when it began: Punish the powerless and cement the supremacy of the powerful.

It remains the ultimate symbol of state control. It makes Black men the face of violence while obscuring the fact that throughout American history there has been a sustained campaign of violence and racial terror perpetrated by white people. It allows society to see an impoverished defendant accused of a single crime as a monster, even as that society fails to hold wealthy people accountable for large-scale crimes — corporate fraud, financial scams, environmental degradation, even torture.

The death penalty today is the apex of a criminal punishment system that cages nearly 70,000 people in North Carolina, including children as young as 11 years old. A system that separates families, blights communities of color, and consumes millions of dollars a year in public resources. A system that has turned a blind eye to police brutality and normalized the killings of Black people.

This project lays bare what too many people, lulled by the myth of a post-racial society, have allowed themselves to forget. Even as the number of executions and death sentences declines, the death penalty remains a powerful symbol of white supremacy.

The project not only takes on the necessary work of detailing how our modern death penalty is inextricably tied to its racist origins, it includes a chorus of voices calling on us to understand our shared history, and rise above it.

Among the voices in Racist Roots are attorney and activist Dawn Blagrove, who speaks of how “the death penalty has always been about controlling Black bodies,” and how Black women have fought to abolish it. Poet Clint Smith writes of the time he stood in an execution chamber, feeling “the shame of being alive in a room built to kill.” Historians Tim Tyson and Seth Kotch catalog the historical link between lynching and the death penalty. Kotch observes how North Carolina “never told the lynch mob not to terrorize and kill Black people. It merely promised to do it for them.” Two former prosecutors discuss their decision to renounce the death penalty, to find a better way to do justice for their communities, rather than continuing to wield it as “an instrument of systemic oppression and injustice.” Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, tells the tragic story of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, in McCleskey v. Kemp, to accept racism in capital cases as inevitable, and the justices’ refusal to do anything about it.

When we hear these voices and open our eyes to the history of capital punishment, the conclusion becomes inescapable. The death penalty is just one more Confederate monument that we must tear down.

Henderson Hill was the founder and first director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation. He previously worked as a public defender in Washington, D.C., as a partner at the civil rights law firm, Ferguson Stein Chambers, and as director of the Federal Defenders of Western North Carolina. He served as founding director of the 8th Amendment Project, and currently serves as senior counsel at the ACLU Capital Punishment Project, and co-director of the initiative RedressNC.