The 49 people living on the United States’ federal death row may have slept a little better the night of Jan. 20, 2021. The previous week had been particularly brutal with the government-sanctioned murders of Lisa Montgomery, Corey Johnson and Dustin Higgs. Their executions came in rapid succession after the executions of 10 others over the course of the previous six months: the lethal injection of Daniel Lewis Lee last July was the first of an unprecedented 13 trips to the death house in Terre Haute, Indiana — something that had not occurred even once in the previous 17 years. These devastating executions reawakened Americans to the federal death penalty system, as well as offer a ripe moment to reflect on the future of the death penalty abolition movement.
With the swearing in of Joe Biden, the country has a president who, for the first time, has made death penalty abolition part of his campaign. And momentum is gaining toward at least commutation of all federal death sentences, and possibly legislation to end the federal death penalty once and for all. But the 49 people living on federal death row are just a tiny fraction of those living under death sentences.
Most death sentences happen at the state level, and 28 states still have the death penalty, with a combined 2,500 people on death row. Many of those states have not executed anyone in years. However, the re-starting of the federal death penalty machine after nearly two decades of inactivity (during both Republican and Democratic administrations), reminds us not to believe that just because there have been no recent executions in a particular state, there will be none in the future. (Visit the Death Penalty Information Center for comprehensive data about the death penalty in the United States.)
We are building a death penalty abolition movement interconnected with the broader movement to dismantle the carceral state.
In my home state of North Carolina, the last execution was in 2006. Yet, the death penalty is still very much alive here. We are among eight states with more than 100 people living on death row, and there are currently five death penalty trials scheduled in the state for 2021. Until no North Carolina prosecutor seeks death as a punishment and no person sits on our state’s death row, the execution chamber remains a threat.
Looking to the examples of other states, we see many possible tactics to pursue. In the past few years, courts in Washington and Delaware declared the death penalty unconstitutional, while the governors of Oregon, Pennsylvania and California imposed moratoriums. Currently, the Virginia legislature is considering an abolition bill, which has the support of the governor. Meanwhile, other states such as Ohio have chipped away at the application of the death penalty by passing legislation prohibiting its use in the case of severe mental illness at the time of the offense.
As one who marched in my first abolition protest at the age of 12 when the death penalty was re-instated in 1976, I believe more than ever we are experiencing the collapse of capital punishment in the United States. Abolition will come, including in North Carolina. However, to reach that point, we must create a movement that is grounded in relationship building and truth telling. How we get to abolition is as important as the hopeful inevitability we will get there.
At the N.C. Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, I work with advocates and social justice organizations across the state to raise our voices in one united call for ending the death penalty. We are building a death penalty abolition movement interconnected with the broader movement to dismantle the carceral state, and we are developing mutual partnerships in which we lift up one another’s calls for action.
Perhaps most significantly, we are striving to more clearly recognize the many ways systemic racism and white supremacy undergird and are embedded in the death penalty. While there are few examples of violent racism as striking as the death penalty, until relatively recently this was not clearly articulated as a primary argument for abolition. This shared vision of ending the death penalty, transforming our criminal legal system, and naming the pervasive power of systemic racism in our carceral state, adds certainty to my hope that abolition is near.
One of our coalition partners, The Center for Death Penalty Litigation, or CDPL, has long battled the death penalty in the courts, especially focusing on the appeals of people sentenced to death in North Carolina. The state’s de facto moratorium on executions is largely due to the successful efforts of CDPL and other nonprofit organizations pursing litigation on behalf of the now 137 people on death row.
That number decreased slightly in 2020, in part due to North Carolina’s landmark Racial Justice Act legislation that passed in 2009, only to be repealed by the state legislature four years later. However, last summer, the state Supreme Court ruled to re-instate the application of the Racial Justice Act. Studies sparked by this legislation found that qualified citizens of color are systematically denied the right to serve on capital juries, and that crimes with white victims are far more likely to result in death sentences. Four people have so far been resentenced to life after proving discrimination under the Racial Justice Act, and dozens more are now entitled to hearings.
However, the Racial Justice Act only scratched the surface of the racism embedded in sentencing people to death. In 2020, CDPL stepped beyond the courtroom with the comprehensive and groundbreaking online publication “Racist Roots,” which clearly states, “North Carolina’s modern death penalty is the fruit of a racist past.” From sharp historical analysis to a first-person poem about visiting an execution chamber, “Racist Roots” chronicles the appalling progression from the lynchings of the past to the executions of today. Attorney Henderson Hill reflects in the opening chapter, “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.”
When the stories of people who have perpetrated harm and stories of those who have suffered harm are amplified, lives are transformed.
In “Racist Roots,” Emancipate NC Executive Director Dawn Blagrove writes of attending her first meeting of death penalty abolitionists in North Carolina. She observes, “I wondered how people fighting against a system rooted in racism could avoid the conversation of race so easily.” In addition to calling for racial analysis within the abolition movement, Blagrove frequently refers to the death penalty “skewing” the entire criminal legal system, shining a light on the tipping point that abolition could bring about. While not primarily focused on the death penalty, Emancipate NC is a key partner in the abolition movement in the state. The success of death penalty abolition depends on nurturing deeper relationships with organizations like Emancipate NC, who are engaged in dismantling structural racism and mass incarceration. These partnerships acknowledge that as long as the government can threaten people with death, the system as a whole will continue to respond in a more retributive and vengeful way — and poor people and people of color will continue to bear the brunt.
As we strive to dismantle systemic racism, we’re also recommitting to centering the stories of those most directly impacted by the death penalty. We want to not just advocate for people on death row and their families, but let their voices be heard and their faces be seen. We also want to bring forward the stories of families who have lost loved ones to murder. When the stories of people who have perpetrated harm and stories of those who have suffered harm are amplified, lives are transformed.
One of our partner organizations, Hidden Voices, spent years helping men on North Carolina’s death row unearth and tell their stories. The men produced artwork mapping their life histories and crafted a play entitled “Count” about their experiences, which they performed on death row. Another version with professional actors was shared with the public. The men on death row also developed monologues about their life experiences, some of which are also included in “Racist Roots” and can be read here. They are powerful testimonies that help us see the roots of crime and understand that the best way to make society safer is not to execute or incarcerate, but to eradicate poverty, end racism and take care of children. In April, Hidden Voices will release a book, “Right Here, Right Now: Life Stories from America’s Death Row,” published by Duke University Press.
Just as important as the stories of people on death row are the stories of families devastated by the murder of a loved one. Many do not support the government’s standard narrative, which says that an execution brings “closure” to families. Some families have come to understand that state violence brings no healing, only more suffering, death and grieving families. As longtime anti-death penalty activist Jean Parks says, reflecting on the experience of losing her sister to murder, “I never wanted another family to feel the pain that my family felt.” Andre Smith, whose son was killed, has devoted his life to working with men in prison, developing anger management strategies and meditation practices. (Read an interview with him here.)
Increasingly, we see the power of restorative justice to help families heal after violence. This process allows all involved to confront the harm and find a path toward repair. Another partner organization, The Capital Restorative Justice Project, offers support to families in this way.
By working collaboratively with other movements for justice, naming and rooting out racism, centering the voices of those most impacted, and pursuing solutions to crime that restore and heal our communities, we will end the death penalty in North Carolina and across the country. As Ella Baker, a North Carolinian who believed in the power of grassroots activism, said, “This may only be a dream of mine, but I think it can be made real.”
As an interfaith organization, FOR-USA's mission is to organize, train, and grow a diverse movement that welcomes all people of conscience to end structures of violence and war, and create peace through the transformative power of nonviolence.
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