Capital Punishment

Written By Kellie Slappey

Capital punishment- or the death penalty- originates from the Latin word capitalis, which literally translates to “regarding the head,” referencing how capital crimes were originally punished by the severing of the head. Capital punishment has been abolished in most major industrialized nations; however, the United States, which consequently has the highest crime rate in the world, still employs it as a method of punishment.  North Carolina’s violent crime rate is the 18th highest in the country, and the Tar Heel State’s use of capital punishment ranks them in 5th place in the nation.

Colonists brought the practice of capital punishment with them from England where English Common Law ruled that criminals committing murder, robbery, arson, and practicing witchcraft, to name four examples, were eligible for the death penalty.  Capital punishment was one of the few sentences that was available to the colonists in the event of a serious crime since small local jails were incapable of holding criminals for long periods of time.

English Common Law paired with the 1663 Charter of the Carolinas governed the administration of capital punishment within the colony of North Carolina. In North Carolina the first documented legal execution occurred on August 26, 1726, when George Sennecca was hanged for a murder committed in Chowan County.

Over time North Carolina colonial legislature passed legislation, including the 1771 Johnston Riot Act, that defined punishable-by-death crimes.  As late as 1817, twenty-eight crimes including burglary and counterfeiting could warrant the death penalty in the Tar Heel State.

In 1868 North Carolina adopted a revised state constitution that made major changes to the definition and prosecution of capital crimes. The number of crimes punishable by death was limited to four: murder, arson, rape and burglary. The Constitution further stipulated that executions thereafter were to take place privately within the walls of a central state penitentiary. In 1893, further reforms were adopted and the crime of murder was divided into two degrees, with only first-degree murder being punishable by death.

In 1909 the North Carolina General Assembly outlawed hanging and passed legislation making electrocution the state’s official method of execution. The legislation also removed the power to execute criminals away from local governments and transferred it to the state.

One 1917 execution prompted some North Carolinians to question whether electrocution was “cruel and unusual punishment” and if it was therefore an unconstitutional action.  That year Rufus Satterfield was electrocuted for over six minutes before deemed dead.  Senator Charles Peterson, a medical doctor, from Mitchell County proposed a bill that would replace electrocution with lethal gas as the state’s official method of execution. Dr. Peterson argued that lethal gas was a more human method of execution.  The bill passed unanimously on May 1, 1935.

When the U.S. Supreme Court started hearing an array of cases from 1967-1972, the question whether capital punishment violates the Eighth Amendment was addressed.  Most of the wording from the decisions were vague and made states wary of enforcing the death penalty. In the 1972, case of Furman v. Georgia the Court finally explicitly ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional.

From 1967-1977 there were no executions anywhere in the U.S and in North Carolina no executions took place from 1962-1983.

Although the Supreme Court had ruled that the death penalty was a cruel and unusual form of punishment, many states including North Carolina passed laws overruling that decision and many juries still wanted to sentence criminals to death row. This nationwide reluctance to adhere to the Supreme Court decision reflected that many people in America did not believe that capital punishment was in all circumstances cruel and unusual punishment.

In 1976, the Supreme Court rectified the situation and in the decision of the case Gregg v. Georgia, Justice Powell noted that, “capital punishment is an expression of society’s moral outrage at particularly offensive conduct.” However the Court set strict limitations to when the death penalty could be administered.

One example of this is where the U.S. Supreme Court overturned North Carolina’s mandatory death sentence for convicted felons of first-degree murderers in the 1976 case of Woodson v. North Carolina. The Court ruled that mandatory death sentences were unconstitutional and that juries must have the option to choose between death and imprisonment.

In 1983, death row inmates in North Carolina were given the option to choose death by lethal injection instead of lethal gas. In 1998, the North Carolina General Assembly completely eliminated the option of execution by lethal gas and lethal injection became the state’s official method. The last person executed by lethal gas in North Carolina was Ricky Lee Sanderson, the murderer of sixteen-year-old Susan Holliman, the daughter of Representative Hugh Holliman.

North Carolina State Senator, Eleanor Kinnaird from Orange County proposed a bill in the 2003 session, which would create a two-year study on the inequalities in capital sentencing along economic, geographic, and racial lines. Although the moratorium on the death penalty was endorsed by over 750 people, the SB 972 bill was defeated in the North Carolina House of Representatives.

Capital punishment was no longer implemented in 2007, when the North Carolina Medical Board issued an ethics policy prohibiting a doctor from doing anything more than being present at an execution. The Medical Board also threatened disciplinary action against any doctor who engaged verbally or physically in facilitating an execution. This contradicted Governor Mike Easley and the Council of States revised execution procedures, which required that a doctor must be present and monitor the inmate’s essential body functions.

Several Republican members of the North Carolina General Assembly sponsored legislation that would ban the Medical Board from punishing doctors who participated in state executions but with a Democrat majority in both chambers the legislation died.

The North Carolina Department of Corrections sued the Medical Board because it was unable to find a doctor willing to assist with lethal injections and therefore it was unable to execute death row inmates.

In 2009, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled in favor of the NC Department of Corrections in the case of NC Dept Corrections v. NC Medical Board, ending the de facto moratorium on the death penalty. The Court argued that the Medical Board did not have the authority to punish doctors for abiding by General Statue G.S.15-190 which required physician presence and participation in state executions.

Even though the lawsuit was settled Injunctions are still in place that prevent the State from re-setting execution dates for convicted North Carolina inmates on death row. The last death penalty sentence that was carried out in North Carolina was on August 18, 2006.

When it comes to capital punishment administered by states since 1930, North Carolina ranks as the fifth highest, with 322.  Only 43 have been since 1976.  

Support for capital punishment is mixed across the Tar Heel state according to a Civitas poll released in April 2010.  Seventy percent of 600 likely voters supported the death penalty for violent crimes.   The poll also revealed that 59% of Democrats, 75% of unaffiliated voters and 82% of Republicans supported using capital punishment for violent crimes.

Although support and opposition for capital punishment typically falls along party lines, Representative Hugh Holliman from Lexington, the Democratic Majority leader, has been a quiet yet heard voice for victims in the halls of the North Carolina General Assembly.

In 2009, Senator Floyd McKissick from Durham County introduced the Racial Justice Act, which would allow pre-trial defendants and inmates on death row to challenge the decision to seek or impose the death penalty if the decision was based on impermissible racial bias. The bill was passed and made into law with an amendment that prohibited the Medical Board and other health agencies from disciplining doctors facilitating executions.

Currently almost all of the inmates on death row in North Carolina have filed for a review of their cases under the Racial Justice Act and those reviews are pending. The reviews coupled with the Injunctions from the Court leave no execution dates set in North Carolina in the near future.

It is unknown whether the previous de facto moratorium and the Racial Justice Act have influenced juries, but the number of death sentences has declined sharply even though the murder rate has been relatively unchanged.  Frank Baumgartner, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, notes that in 1996, 57% of all death penalty trials ended with the death penalty but in 2008 only 8% did.

A 2009 poll conducted by Elon Poll at Elon University surveyed 758 North Carolina residents.  Among them, 72% chose life in prison without the possibility of parole as a method of punishment for those convicted of first-degree murder.

The future existence of capital punishment in North Carolina is uncertain.  But with North Carolinians so closely divided, the debate will more than likely continue and be a pressing issue for the 2011 legislature.