Unduly harsh and unworkably rigid: the death penalty in North Carolina, 1910-1961 Public Deposited

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  • March 22, 2019
  • Kotch, Seth
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of History
  • Some contemporary observers believe that southern states' prolific execution record can be traced back to a violent southern past. But an examination of concerns about the pain inflicted by the noose, the electric chair, and the gas chamber; of the complex influence of race on the death penalty process; of recommendations of mercy by jurors and governors' acts of executive clemency; and of the controversy that these issues raised reveals that the history of the death penalty in North Carolina, the South, and the nation, is much more nuanced. Concerns about pain and its effects on an audience inspired lawmakers to try to make executions less painful and less visible. North Carolina became among the nation's first adopters of the electric chair and the gas chamber, but failed to dull public interest in executions and focused the conversation about the death penalty on methods rather than motivations. The racism of the Jim Crow South informed the death penalty, and North Carolina disproportionately executed African Americans, especially those who committed crimes against whites. However, all-white juries could show even African Americans accused of shocking crimes some leniency, applying a brutal logic that revealed the flexibility of the racial caste system. In an era when murder, rape, burglary, and arson carried mandatory death sentences, juries showed mercy by withholding guilty verdicts, formally recommending life sentences, following a guilty verdict with petitions to the governor for clemency. North Carolinians knew that their death penalty was capricious, and they exploited it to introduce mercy into the process. All the while, some North Carolinians were trying to persuade their fellow citizens to reject death as punishment. This dissertation invites a reconsideration of vengeance, justice, and race in one southern state. The death penalty's history in North Carolina is one of anxieties and ambivalence as much as racism and vengeance.
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  • In Copyright
  • Brundage, W. Fitzhugh
  • Open access

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