The death penalty and lynching were instruments of “white supremacist political and social power” in North Carolina, diverging in form but not in function. So writes University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill American Studies Professor Seth Kotch In his newly released book, Lethal State: A History of the Death Penalty in North Carolina. Lethal State tracks North Carolina’s use of the death penalty from post-Civil War Reconstruction to the present. Kotch summarizes the through line of capital punishment, saying, “The death penalty’s habits in North Carolina included preying on the mentally compromised, people of color, and people in poverty … and above all, expressing the cruelties and prejudices of white supremacy by asserting through its uneven outcomes the rule that white lives — especially educated, white lives of means — mattered most.”

Kotch’s book shines a light on the continuing patterns of racial injustice from the Carolina colony’s first execution — that of a Native American accused of killing a white woman — through the era of lynching and Jim Crow, and on to the disproportionate use of capital punishment against racial minorities in North Carolina today. In the second half of the 1800s through the establishment of Jim Crow apartheid in the first half of the 1900s, Kotch writes, “the death penalty and lynchings were symbiotic,” with lynching “provided a scaffolding on which to build a death penalty—one that disproportionately targeted African American men … until the death penalty was strong enough to stand on its own.” The state’s Jim Crow death penalty “felt more like an expression of state power than a blow against it, and that threat of racial violence, Kotch writes, “was fundamental to its existence.”

Experts on North Carolina’s death penalty have lauded the importance and power of the book. Ken Rose, a longtime death-penalty defense attorney at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, said, “Seth Kotch fills his well-documented and exhaustively researched book about North Carolina’s history of executions with spectacular tales of the state’s failure to mete out justice reliably and to treat persons of color and the poor fairly.” Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, a professor of history at UNC-Chapel Hill, said, “Few historical studies have so thoroughly refocused my understanding of one of the foremost issues of our time: the criminal justice system’s persistently inequitable treatment of African American men.”

Kotch provides stark data to support his thesis: “Between the end of the Civil War and 1910, 74 percent of those executed were African Americans, although their proportion of the population never exceeded 38 percent. From between 1910 and 1961, 78 percent of those executed were black men, most for crimes with white victims. Adding American Indians, a full 80 percent of those executed were people of color and just one white person was executed for a crime against a person of color.” The North Carolina death penalty of the early twentieth century “overwhelmingly continued to punish the same people (African Americans) for the same crimes (murder, rape, burglary) against the same people (white victims) as did lynching.” First-degree burglary, he writes, made it unlawful for a black man to be present in a home occupied by white women, and “[t]hose executed for burglary in North Carolina were always black, their victims were always white, and the crimes that resulted in executions almost always carried the hint of interracial sexual violence.” North Carolina conducted 67 executions for rape between 1910 and 1950, nearly all involving black men accused of raping white women. Overall, 78% of those executed in North Carolina between 1910 and 1961 were black men, most accused of crimes against white victims.

In a June 19 radio interview on WUNC, Kotch said he wrote Lethal State because “it seemed like this hugely important moral decision that a state…would make, that seemed to happen in darkness and without a good deal of discussion, and so I wanted to provide a little bit of light.” Kotch also discusses the state’s abortive implementation of a Racial Justice Act, which legislators passed to allow death-row prisoners to present statistical evidence of racial bias to challenge their death sentences and then repealed after a court found systemic evidence of discriminatory practices across the state. The interview also covers the de facto execution moratorium in place in North Carolina, which has not carried out an execution since 2006 because state law requires a doctor to participate in executions, but the North Carolina Medical Board has said it will punish physicians who participate because their involvement violates medical ethics.


Seth Kotch, Lethal State: A History of the Death Penalty in North Carolina, University of North Carolina Press, 2019; Dana Terry and Frank Stasio, Lethal State: North Carolina’s Delicate Dance With Death, WUNC, June 192019.