Facing Controversy: Struggling with Capital Punishment in North Carolina

Legality

Perhaps the most basic legal question concerning the death penalty is defining, by law, which crimes will be punishable by death -- which criminals will be legally subject to this form of punishment. Currently, North Carolina state law provides only for the imposition of the death penalty for one crime: murder in the first degree. However, this singularity has not always been the case under state law. At various points in our history, North Carolina law has provided for a death sentence for as many as fifty-three capital crimes, reaching this number during the late-eighteenth century. In 1837, the state changed its capital code, decreasing the number of crimes punishable by death to twenty-six, including murder, arson, burglary, dueling, castration, stealing slaves, burning bridges, and second offenses of other crimes such as bigamy and horse-stealing.

Other legal issues have been points of controversy, especially matters that arise during the trials of capital defendants. These issues include consideration of mitigating factors such as an accused's background, age, and mental capacity at the time of the crime; the reliability of evidence presented by the state; and the quality of representation available to capital defendants. The North Carolina General Assembly has modified laws from time to time in order to respond to controversies over these issues. For instance, in 2001, the General Assembly enacted a ban on executing inmates with IQs of 70 or less.

1982: Stay of execution for Velma Barfield
1984: Stay of execution
[Click image to enlarge (opens in new window).]

Until fairly recently, legal opposition to executions has taken one of two routes: judicial appeals to challenge the process under which the inmate was sentenced, or pleas to the parole board or to the governor for commutation of the death sentence. Challenges to the very constitutionality of capital punishment began in the 1960s. Many believed that North Carolina lawmakers might do away with the death penalty in its entirety during that decade due to the threat of legal challenges in state courts and the possibility of North Carolina cases being used as the basis for constitutional battles in the United States Supreme Court. In fact, a de facto moratorium on capital punishment was in place in North Carolina during the 1960s and early 1970s when the threat of these legal challenges was at its peak. There were no state executions in North Carolina from 1961 to 1984.

In 1960s North Carolina, there was broad support for abolition of the death penalty among many of the state's highest officials. North Carolina Governor Robert Scott and Attorney General Robert Morgan opposed the death penalty, as did State Commissioner of Corrections Lee Bounds and numerous members of the General Assembly. The lobby group known as North Carolinians Against the Death Penalty supported legislative bills for abolition of the death penalty at each of the biennial sessions of the North Carolina General Assembly (1963, 1965, 1967, 1969, and 1971). Each one was voted down.

The context for all of this changed in 1972 when the United States Supreme Court declared all death penalty statutes unconstitutional through its decision in the case of Furman v. Georgia. Later that year, the North Carolina Supreme Court responded by ruling that the U. S. Supreme Court's pronouncement had the effect only of making the death penalty unconstitutional when a jury had to choose between the death penalty and another sentence. North Carolina law was then changed to require the death sentence for all capital crimes.

The United States Supreme Court struck down the North Carolina mandatory sentencing law in the case of Woodson v. North Carolina. The court declared that mandatory death sentences were untenable given the vast number of factors in individual capital cases. Then in 1976, the U. S. Supreme Court in Gregg v. Georgia ruled that the death penalty as such was not unconstitutional and issued guidelines for legislatures to follow in crafting constitutional capital sentencing schemes. North Carolina then enacted its current death penalty provisions, which included the lethal injection method of execution. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, North Carolina has executed forty-three individuals at Central Prison in Raleigh.


Suggestions for further reading:

[Click on the following source to go to the UNC Library's catalog record for the item.]

Bedau, Hugo A., ed. The Death Penalty in America: Current Controversies. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.



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