Advocates push for extraordinary action on the death penalty

Published December 14, 2023

By Rob Schofield

Even the most ardent “pro” and “con” advocates must concede that, by any fair assessment, the politics surrounding the death penalty in North Carolina are complicated and difficult.

Abolition proponents have the best of the argument when it comes to a dispassionate review of the data. No, the threat of the death penalty doesn’t deter crime, and yes, it’s regularly applied in ways that are racist and blatantly unfair. Now add to this a criminal justice system that regularly convicts innocent people, and the fact that we’ve yet to come up with a means of killing people that isn’t brutal and horrific, and it comes as little surprise that by retaining capital punishment, North Carolina aligns itself with a rapidly shrinking list of autocratic regimes that’s topped by China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.

All that said, it’s not difficult to understand the deep emotions that underlie the position staked out by many death penalty supporters. We humans have killed those accused of crimes for millennia and while the practice has steadily waned over the centuries, it’s still easy to feel the presence of injustice and unfairness in the notion that someone might brutally end another’s life and yet still live to a ripe old age — especially in the case of a murderer who has acted multiple times.

And while this debate would be plenty fraught and complex if it were merely a moral or academic exercise, it can readily become a quagmire of misinformation and prejudice in the world of modern sound bite politics, where anonymous forces – particularly on the political right – are happy to expend millions on ads designed to mislead and manipulate emotions.

It’s into this challenging environment that abolition advocates have waded in recent months with a new and spirited push for change in North Carolina. As NC Newsline reporter Kelan Lyons detailed in a recent special report (“In NC, one man — Gov. Roy Cooper — has the power to empty death row. But will he do it?”) a large, impressive, and indeed, international coalition is asking Cooper to commute the sentences of 136 people on the state’s death row before he leaves office in January of 2025.

The group’s arguments for action are both substantive and political.

First and foremost, they point to the multiple instances of wrongful convictions in which innocent people have been sentenced to death and, almost certainly, executed. As the sobering stories of people like Ed Chapman, Alfred Rivera and Henry McCollum (who were sentenced to death and later exonerated) testify, the death penalty provides a vehicle by which the state can perpetrate one of the most horrific crimes imaginable: the intentional killing of an innocent person.

The overwhelming historical connection, they argue further, between the death penalty and racism – Lyons’ report documents the startling geographic correlation between American lynchings that occurred between 1883 and 1940, and the execution of Black defendants between 1972 and 2020 – further renders the notion that the death penalty can ever be applied in a just way even more farfetched.

Interestingly, abolition advocates make no pretenses about the political calculations behind their current push. Their hope is to spur Gov. Roy Cooper — a term-limited governor who won’t be on the ballot in 2024 to face any potential blowback – to use his formidable commutation powers under the state constitution before he leaves office. Their up-front fear is that Republicans committed to reviving the death penalty might win the governor’s mansion in 2024 and take control of all three branches of state government.

Whether this strategy has any chance of succeeding – either practically or politically – remains quite uncertain.

Cooper has traditionally been a supporter of the death penalty and has given no public indication of being receptive to the coalition’s entreaties. What’s more, at a comparatively youthful 66, the governor has never said he’s retiring from public life. And even if he was set on retirement and thought mass commutation the right thing to do, Cooper is fully aware that such a move would give rise to cacophony of conservative attacks that could sorely burden other Democratic candidates and officials.

All that said, the governor is also a smart and informed lawyer who understands that the death penalty is a deeply flawed institution for which public support has plummeted in recent years – this, even as myriad court challenges have kept North Carolina from killing anyone on death row since 2006.

Cooper is also well-aware that while the North Carolina governor’s office is one of the nation’s weakest – a fact only exacerbated by repeated legislative power grabs in recent years – one notable exception to this rule is in the realm of criminal justice, where the governor retains broad power to grant clemency and commute sentences.

For a politician long hamstrung by constitutional limits and large and hostile majorities in the General Assembly, it seems at least plausible that a commutation of all 136 death sentences to life in prison would be a bold way to break out of the box.

So, will Cooper act? Common wisdom holds that it’s likely bridge too far, but if he surprises — something far from unprecedented among departing chief executives — it would leave an enduring and honorable mark.