In North Carolina, a coalition of activists is calling on Governor Roy Cooper to commute the death sentences of 136 people “as an act of racial justice” before he leaves office in 2024. Edward “Ed” Chapman, a death row exoneree who spent 14 years on death row, along with other advocates with the North Carolina Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, are urging  Gov. Cooper to grant clemency to all death-sentenced individuals in North Carolina “because of the injustices of the death penalty and North Carolina’s criminal legal system at large.” Prominent among their reasons are the racial disparities seen in North Carolina’s use of the death penalty.  Despite being just  22% of North Carolina’s residents, more than half of those on the state’s death row are Black. Of the 12 individuals exonerated  from death row in North Carolina, 11 are people are color.

Gov. Cooper’s opportunity to grant clemency would not directly result in the release of any prisoners. The North Carolina state constitution only grants the governor the power to shorten prison sentences. Thus, Gov. Cooper has the power to commute death sentences to life sentences with or without the possibility of parole, and unlike states like Louisiana, he does not need the recommendation of a parole board before doing so.

Gov. Cooper has not made any comment about whether he is considering using his clemency power. While some executives view clemency as a remedy for legal injustice, others see it purely as an act of mercy. Former North Carolina Gov. Terry Sanford, who held the office from 1961 to 1965, saw his clemency power as a form of grace when he decided to shorten the sentences of 29 prisoners in 1961:

“It falls to the governor to blend mercy with justice, as best he can, involving human as well as legal considerations, in the light of all circumstances after the passage of time, but before justice is allowed to overrun mercy in the name of the power of the state.”

Since 1977,  three North Carolina governors have granted clemency to five death-sentenced individuals. There have also been broad grants of clemency from governors in other states.  In 2003, former Illinois Governor George Ryan pardoned four-death row prisoners and commuted the sentences of 167 others, clearing the state’s death row. Most recently in 2022, former Oregon Governor Kate Brown commuted the sentences of all 17 individuals on the state’s death row before leaving office, calling the death penalty “both dysfunctional and immoral.” Neither of these governors suffered any significant backlash from voters as a result of their decisions.  

North Carolina has not carried out any executions since 2006, when lawsuits regarding lethal injection drugs paused further executions. Ongoing litigation regarding application of the Racial Justice Act (RJA) which  permitted death-sentenced prisoners  to raise new claims of racial discrimination, currently prevents the governor from scheduling any executions.

The current clemency effort has the support of at least twenty local and national social justice and civil rights organizations, who share a sense of urgency because Governor Cooper will leave office next year. Some candidates for that office have already promised increased use of the death penalty if they are elected. Kristie Puckett, Senior Project Manager with Forward Justice, told a crowd of activists at a rally that Gov. Cooper is their last hope. “We can’t trust our legislature. We can’t trust the courts… And so we are forced to rely on Governor Cooper.”