New DPIC Podcast Discusses Racist Roots’ and Enduring Injustice’ of U.S. Death Penalty

Posted on Nov 25, 2020

In the November 2020 episode of Discussions with DPIC, Gretchen Engel (pictured, left), Executive Director of North Carolina’s Center for Death Penalty Litigation (CDPL), joins Ngozi Ndulue (pictured, below), Senior Director of Research and Special Projects at DPIC, for a discussion of their organizations’ recent reports on race and the death penalty. This fall, DPIC released Enduring Injustice: The Persistence of Racial Discrimination in the U.S. Death Penalty. Less than a month later, CDPL released its own report, Racist Roots: Origins of North Carolina’s Death Penalty. Though the styles of the two reports are very different, both address the historical ties between the death penalty and white supremacy, slavery, lynchings, and Jim Crow.

Engel describes the Racist Roots project, which was inspired by the 1619 Project at the New York Times. CDPL collaborated with historians, civil rights groups, lawyers, and artists to produce a compilation of works on “the history of the death penalty’s entanglement with race in this country.” She shares some of the throughlines that were illuminated by the project, including the use of animal imagery to dehumanize Black defendants: “that was used in headlines in the 1920s, and was used in closing arguments in the 1990s, or even in horrific postings to a local newspaper, regarding the capital trial of Andrew Ramseur in 2010, when people were suggesting that that monkey be hung from the nearest streetlight, as a message to ‘them.’”

Both reports examined visual symbols to highlight themes of race. Ndulue describes one striking juxtaposition from Enduring Injustice, saying, “one of the really powerful pieces for us … was a picture of a public hanging, the last public hanging in Kentucky, and how similar it looked to the picture of a lynching. And that was lynching in Paris, Texas … where the words ‘justice’ are on the gallows where the lynching occurred, giving it kind of this aura of acceptability, of its official status. But really, other than that word, ‘justice,’ when you look side by side … that lynching which is supposedly, this extralegal, vigilante, not a true part of our justice system, violence is identical to what was supported, is supposed to be civilized, accepted as part of our justice system.”

The discussion also links the death penalty to broader societal conversations about racial justice. In Racist Roots, CDPL founder Henderson Hill writes, “When we open our eyes to the history of capital punishment, the conclusion becomes inescapable. The death penalty is just one more Confederate monument that we must tear down.” Ndulue draws the connection between that metaphor and the very literal Confederate monuments, like one outside the courthouse in Caddo Parish, Louisiana, a county that represented just 5% of the state’s population but produced one-third of the state’s death sentences between 2010 and 2015. Caddo Parish had a pattern of prosecutorial misconduct, especially the removal of Black citizens from juries, which was linked to its overuse of capital punishment.

Engel explains how the death penalty has contributed to mass incarceration by encouraging defendants to take plea deals for long sentences, in order to avoid the death penalty, and by framing life without parole as an alternative when juries want an assurance that a defendant will never be released. She describes the death penalty as “the apex of our system, and … the apex of the racism in the system.”

Ndulue says that the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, “crystallized for me the importance of telling the stories of a country and a legal system in which we have come to kind of accept this parade of violence and death…. Completing this report and issuing it this fall was really important, not just for being able to provide some context while the nation is considering this issue, but it was also important to broaden the understanding of the problems with the death penalty and continued racial bias beyond kind of just the statistics of the disparate impact and the disproportionate use.”


Discussions with DPIC pod­cast, Gretchen Engel on the Racist Roots Report from the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, Death Penalty Information Center, November 25, 2020; Enduring Injustice: The Persistence of Racial Discrimination in the U.S. Death Penalty, Death Penalty Information Center, September 2020; Racist Roots: Origins of North Carolina’s Death Penalty, Center for Death Penalty Litigation, October 2020.