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NC death penalty foes push equity task force for repeal
Study joins growing wave of opposition
Published Tuesday, October 6, 2020 11:00 pm
by Herbert L. White | The Charlotte Post

The execution chamber at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. North Carolina opponents to the death penalty want the Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice to include capital punishment repeal in its recommendations to Gov. Roy Cooper later this year. Of the state’s 140 death row inmates, 75, or 53% of the total, are Black.

Criminal justice reform advocates want a repeal of capital punishment in North Carolina.

A new report by the Center for Death Penalty Litigation equates capital punishment to a method to assert white dominance by keeping Black Americans in line. The study, “Racist Roots: Origins of North Carolina’s Death Penalty,” details the history and disproportionate application of capital punishment to Black people while excluding them from participation in juries.

Charlotte attorney Henderson Hill, the center’s founder, likened capital punishment to a “Confederate monument that we must tear down” in an essay for the report. He contends a review of the death penalty is long overdue.

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

Emancipate NC, a criminal justice reform advocacy group that co-authored the report, is calling on Gov. Roy Cooper’s Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice to include death penalty repeal in its recommendations to be released later this year. Of North Carolina’s 140 death row inmates, 75, or 53% of the total, are Black. The state’s population is 22% Black.

“The death penalty was used to uphold the institution of slavery, and then to enforce Jim Crow. Its racist aims were explicit,” said Emancipate NC Executive Director Dawn Blagrove, an author of the report. “Now, through systemic and institutional racism, the death penalty is cloaked in the disguise of fairness but still only serves to terrorize Black people and punish crimes against white people. If the task force’s goal is truly to ‘stop discriminatory law enforcement and criminal justice practices,’ the death penalty is an obvious place to start.”  

North Carolina's courts have already taken steps to mitigate the impact of race on capital punishment. In August, the state Supreme Court ruled 4-3 to commute Marcus Robinson’s death sentence to life without parole, a first for the state under the now-repealed Racial Justice Act, which was rescinded in 2013. The justices found evidence supported the plaintiffs’ claim that racial bias is often part of capital trials, involving Black defendants up to intentionally excluding Blacks from juries. In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Cheri Beasley pointed to an “egregious legacy of the racially discriminatory application” of the death penalty, writing: “equal protection to all must be given—not merely promised.”

The same court in June cleared a path for review of racial discrimination in death penalty cases with a 6-1 decision that defendants Rayford Burke and Andrew Ramseur, who, like Robinson, are Black, were entitled to present evidence that prosecutors willfully excluded African Americans from their juries and racial bias tainted their trials. The court also ruled death row inmates who filed claims under the RJA before its repeal to present their evidence in court. The case was decided under the state constitution, which can’t be appealed to a federal court.

The Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice, convened by Cooper earlier this year in response to protests after the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, has made several recommendations. It proposed the Administrative Office of the Courts include information on race in its data reporting and require racial equity training for court system personnel. The task force’s first recommendations – made in July – include “duty to report” excessive force rules across law enforcement agencies and outlaw choke holds. It also asked the state Supreme Court to mandate an assessment of ability to pay before levying fines and fees to felons.  

“Racist Roots” details history of the death penalty, case studies of modern death row prisoners, as well as essays by more than a dozen contributors including scholars, advocates, and death row residents.

“This report lays bare what too many people, lulled by the myth of a post-racial society, have allowed themselves to forget,” Hill wrote. “The death penalty’s history is inseparable from our history of slavery, Jim Crow and mass incarceration. Even as the number of executions and death sentences declines, it remains a powerful symbol of white supremacy.”
Blagrove’s essay focuses on the role of Black women in fighting for social justice.

Blasgrove’s essay argues ending capital punishment, like other social justice crusades such as Black Lives Matter, are often led by Black women.

“Black women are the heart of the Black family,” she wrote. “We manifest our love by shielding our communities from the harsh punishment America inflicts. Black women stand when it’s hard, scary, and inconvenient. We stand when others won’t. The fight to abolish the death penalty is no different.

“This project shows us not just where we are, but how we got here. It shows us how our current systems were born out of our country’s long history of racism and oppression. There is no fix for such corrupt systems, except to abolish them and start over.”


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