The year ahead: Capital punishment and other criminal justice issues in North Carolina

The year ahead: Capital punishment and other criminal justice issues in North Carolina

NC’s execution chamber. (Photo courtesy NC Department of Public Safety.)

One of the first things I did after starting at Policy Watch last summer was ask the Department of Public Safety to give me tours of a few of the state’s 53 prisons. I’d done the same thing at my last job, in Connecticut. My thinking is, if I’m going to write about a state’s prison system, I owe it to readers and those locked within to see some those places firsthand.

A guided tour is not the best way to get a sense of how incarcerated people are treated each day, but it has some advantages. While prison officials can present a sanitized version of their correctional facilities, they cannot change each building’s architecture, the layout of the housing units or the size of the cells in which the incarcerated live, locked away for years at a time.

I visited penitentiaries in Nash, Columbus and Orange counties. But it was the prison closest to my office — Central Prison, in Raleigh, just down the street from the vast green expanse of Dorothea Dix Park — that jolted me into a reckoning that I wasn’t in Connecticut anymore.

All 134 of the men on North Carolina’s death row — more than half of whom are Black — are held at Central. At the time, the youngest person there was 31-year-old David Goodwin. Tony Sidden was the oldest, age 75. (The oldest woman on death row is 89-year-old Blanche Moore, held at NC Correctional Institution for Women, also in Raleigh.) But it was 62-year-old Wayne Laws who had been there the longest, since Aug. 2, 1985, potentially putting him among the first in line to be killed should North Carolina ever resume executing those it condemned to die.

No one has been executed in North Carolina since 2006. But the execution chamber is still at Central Prison, waiting.

And I saw it during my tour.

The room is oddly shaped, more a wedge than a rectangle. It’s no more than 7-and-a-half-feet wide and a little over 13 feet long. The centerpiece is a thin mattress resting on a metal stand. Just under the pillow are four black seatbelts, tools to hold the incarcerated during the execution. The lethal fluids are placed behind their heads, out of eyesight. My tour guide told me that some of what goes on in that room is classified, but corrections staff still “practice,” despite that there hasn’t been an execution in 16 years; how often they rehearse an execution isn’t public information.

The tour guide gave me a brief rundown of how an execution is conducted. For the last few days of their lives, the incarcerated stay in a room across the hall from where they will die. They can meet with clergy and family during that time. Near the end, they get a last meal, which, contrary to what you see in the movies, doesn’t involve prison staff running to McDonald’s or some other favorite neighborhood haunt; the food is made in-house at Central.

Inside the chamber is a 5-foot-wide window. On the other side, in the “death watch area,” are 13 teal chairs that can be filled by journalists, members of the victim’s family and the family of the person about to be killed.

Before they die, the “condemned prisoner” — parlance from the state’s manual on the death sentence — may say a few words, the last they’ll say in this life.

And then they are injected with a lethal cocktail of drugs. Those in the death watch area observe their final breaths. Then they wait. Per protocol, the warden is to sit through five minutes where the condemned “shows or exhibits no life signs,” after which they ask the licensed physician to declare the person dead.

As my tour guide explained all this to me last summer, the only thing I could think was that the air in those two spaces, the execution chamber and the death watch room, felt heavy. Regardless of your thoughts on the death penalty, whether you think it’s just or abhorrent, it is impossible to deny the weight in those rooms. It is inescapable.

I’m not sure how many of the hundreds of people the state has executed since 1910 have died in that execution chamber specifically, but all of them have been killed at Central. The gas chamber, the electric chair, lethal injection — all methods were used at the prison in Raleigh, two miles from the Capitol and the governor’s mansion. Standing there in the execution chamber, I was feet, if not inches, from where the state had committed at least some of its executions.

Seeing all of this helped me remember one of the reasons why I do this job: to bear witness. To remember. And to transmit, so no one can forget.

To me, that is journalism in its purest form. We observe suffering — of people who have lost loved ones to senseless violence, of people in pain who commit unspeakable crimes, of hurt people who, in turn, hurt people — and create a record of it. We watch. We listen. And we humanize.

That is what I plan on doing more of in 2023, as I continue to build this beat and get to know my new home.

There will be plenty of opportunities to bear witness this year.

North Carolina’s execution chamber hasn’t been active for a while, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t still being sentenced to death here. As of this writing there are 11 capital trials scheduled across the state in 2023. Most of the people facing a death sentence are Black, a connection to the Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice’s observation that the death penalty has a “relationship to white supremacy” and that “the use of capital punishment in our state has been tainted by racial bias.”

The North Carolina Supreme Court has recognized the death penalty’s relation to racism, too. Following a landmark 2020 decision on the Racial Justice Act, a surge of new litigation will be argued in the courts beginning in 2023 over whether individuals’ death sentences shouldn’t be carried out because those verdicts are infected with discrimination. Victory in those cases won’t mean release from prison; it will simply mean a new sentence to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

Here are some other things I’ll be paying attention to this year:

Clemency

I’ll continue to watch for Gov. Roy Cooper’s use of clemency, an act of grace he extended to 10 people at the end of 2022. The vigil outside his house stretched into the new year, awaiting an announcement of additional pardons or commutations.

A few weeks before Cooper exercised his clemency powers, advocates marched the two miles from Central Prison to the governor’s mansion calling on Cooper to commute the state’s 136 death sentences to life without parole before the governor leaves office at the end of 2024. (That’s what Oregon’s governor did on her way out the door last month, and something the Nevada governor flirted with before a district court judge blocked it.)

If Cooper were to commute those sentences to life imprisonment, North Carolina would lose its ranking of having the fifth-largest death row in the country.

But capital punishment isn’t all I’ll be keeping an eye on in 2023. I’ll also be covering my first legislative session in North Carolina.

Juvenile justice in the legislature

I’m curious to see how lawmakers respond to dire warnings from state officials that juvenile detention centers are chronically understaffed. The issue is part of a broader re-calibration of the juvenile system after the state raised the age of juvenile jurisdiction three years ago and stopped automatically trying 16- and 17-year olds in the adult justice system when they ran afoul of the law. Ensuring those kids get rehabilitative services takes resources, which might make for an interesting dynamic considering Republicans across the U.S. warned of a pervasive crime wave before the midterms last year — a message that didn’t exactly translate come Election Day.

Then there’s the matter of juvenile parole.

In 2021 legislators considered eliminating life without parole for people convicted of crimes when they were kids. The bill was co-sponsored by four Republicans and had bipartisan support. Legislators were planning on voting it out of committee, but then the Conference of District Attorneys gave their public testimony. The bill didn’t advance after that.

I’m interested to see if this discussion advances in the next legislative session. Will Republicans be willing to raise the bill again, or have they taken the issue as far as they can? Is there a compromise to be made with the Conference of DAs?

In some ways, the state Supreme Court picked up where the legislature left off, issuing a pair of major rulings last year extending parole eligibility for people convicted of crimes when they were minors after they’ve served 40 years in prison.

But the rulings’ future could be up in the air, since the Supreme Court will flip to a Republican majority this year — and a dissent in one of the cases may not bode well for the precedent.

The state Supreme Court

Supreme Court of North Carolina (Photo: nccourts.gov)

Republicans now have a firm 5-2 majority on the state’s highest court, potentially imperiling rulings on juvenile parole, the voter ID law, racial gerrymandering and funding for public education.

Much was made on the campaign trail last year about the importance of nonpartisanship and respecting precedent established by other iterations of the Supreme Court, but now that Richard Dietz and Trey Allen have won their seats, it remains to be seen whether those rulings will hold, especially since Republicans will hold a majority until at least 2028. After all, Republicans tend to vote in concert, according to an analysis by The Assembly, and their dissents in key cases when they were in the minority could telegraph the direction the Republican-dominated court will take on future cases.

Of the cases that are pending, one I intend to follow especially closely is CSI v. Moore, a lawsuit that this past election cycle unlocked the vote of more than 56,000 North Carolinians on supervision for a felony conviction.

Policy Watch collaborated with another news outlet, Bolts, for a story last year about the case. I talked with one of the plaintiffs who had been disenfranchised earlier in life and who was working to register people on supervision. When he first got out of prison, he didn’t think much of voting. That changed over time. When he finally voted for the first time, years after coming home, he said to himself, “Man, I did it. I got a piece of myself back.”

Oral arguments are scheduled to take place in the first quarter of this year.

What else should I be paying attention to this year? Send me an email at [email protected].

And here are a few of the stories I am most proud of from my first six months at Policy Watch.