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  • Lethal State: A History of the Death Penalty in North Carolina by Seth Kotch
  • Charles D. Phillips
Lethal State: A History of the Death Penalty in North Carolina
By Seth Kotch
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019. 320 pages.

Proponents of North Carolina's death penalty have usually voiced their support for this extreme punishment by lauding its ability to end a criminal's killing spree, deter would-be killers, or mete out just deserts. Seth Kotch's book explores the subtext he believes too often underlies these beliefs–demonstrating and sustaining the dominance of whites over people of color. In support of this perspective, the author presents convincing evidence drawn from the entirety of North Carolina's history.

The author begins his work with an introduction that provides a general discussion of race, crime, and punishment in North Carolina, both prior to and after the American Civil War. Each of the five following chapters provides insight into some specific aspect of execution or lynching in the State. The author's conclusions complete the work with a return to a broader perspective. The volume also includes appendices listing executions and lynchings in the State.

The introduction provides a broad-brush picture of the history of punishment in North Carolina. In its early years, the State mimicked draconian English criminal statutes. In 1815, for example, the State listed 28 offenses punishable by death, including such crimes as forgery and counterfeiting. As in England, the law's bark in North Carolina was much worse than its bite, with almost all executions resulting from convictions for murder or rape.

By the American Civil War, the list of capital offenses included only what the author identifies as "sins against the body (murder, rape, stealing free people for sale as slaves), the soul (sodomy and bestiality), and property (arson, burglary, slave stealing)" (11). One of the more interesting aspects of this section comes in its discussion of slave courts and the punishment of slaves. I am sure that some readers will be both surprised and mortified to learn that slave women convicted of murdering their master could be, and sometimes were, executed by burning them to death.

Chapter One deals with the difficult issue of the relationship between capital punishment and lynching. Lynching tailed off in the 1930s, but prior to that time, the two types of killing basically served as alternatives. As one of Kotch's sources put it, executions occurred when law enforcement would not allow lynchings; lynchings occurred when law enforcement ignored or cooperated with the lynch mob. Evidence presented throughout the chapter provides ample evidence supporting the author's major thesis-these killings were part of an ongoing structure of racial domination.

The second chapter chronicles North Carolina's changes in its methods of execution. Prior to 1910, executions were county affairs. After that time, prisoners were executed at Central Prison in Raleigh. As executions moved behind somewhat closed doors, electrocution became the chosen method of killing. In 1930, poison gas replaced electrocution. All these changes were attempts to make the State seem more progressive, or at least make the inhumane seem more humane. Yet, the author provides anecdotes indicating that none of these methods, especially during the early years of their use, were as painless and decorous ceremonies as reformers had hoped.

Executive clemency, which was used extensively from 1910 to 1940, is the theme of the third chapter. During this period, largely because of mandatory death sentences for serious crimes, commutations played a major role in the criminal justice process. For example, between 1910 and 1937, 183 prisoners were executed, while 149 had their death sentences commuted. Governors usually commuted sentences because of offenders' youth, because offenders suffered from an intellectual or developmental disability, or because the charged offense did not involve serious harm. Commutations' importance declined after 1949, when the death penalty became mandatory only for rape or murder.

Chapter Four purports to chronicle anti-death penalty activism and the decline in executions from 1941 to 1961. Instead, it presents a broader, and somewhat disjointed, story of anti-death penalty activism from the late 19th...


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