First NC death sentence since 2019 is a reminder: Even without executions, the machinery of death cranks on

The death chamber at North Carolina’s Central Prison has gone unused for several years, but the state continues to maintain a large and growing death row.

If you follow the news about the death penalty, you’ve probably heard that five executions are scheduled in United States in the next few weeks — and that one of them is Melissa Lucio, who is set to be killed in Texas in a few days despite overwhelming evidence that she was coerced into confessing to a crime she didn’t commit.

You may not have heard that, here in North Carolina, this week marked our state’s first capital trial and death sentence since the pandemic began. A Hoke County jury sentenced Tillman Freeman III to death after he accepted responsibility and pleaded guilty to killing his two children. The sentencing hearing received almost no news coverage.

Without the clamor of executions, it’s easy to forget that North Carolina has a death penalty. But below the radar, the machinery of death cranks on. Our state continues to house one of the largest death row populations in the nation, now with 135 people. Capital trials continue to be scheduled and, occasionally, juries still sentence people to be executed. Meanwhile, the litigation that is holding executions at bay continues its way through the courts.

About a dozen more capital trials are now scheduled in North Carolina. [Learn more here about the current status of the NC death penalty.] Each trial will have huge emotional and financial costs, yet will do nothing to make our state safer.

During the pandemic, we went two and a half years without a capital trial or death sentence, and we were no less safe than we are now. The existence of the death penalty did not prevent this tragic crime, and it will not prevent others. If we as a society are truly concerned about crime prevention, we should work to build healthy families and communities rather than devising cruel punishments.

New death sentences help to preserve a racist and unjust institution — and to skew the entire criminal punishment system toward extreme and inhumane sentences. They also serve as a reminder that we must keep working to end the death penalty in North Carolina.

It’s not enough that we aren’t executing people like our neighbors in South Carolina, who are bringing back the firing squad. We need to fully abolish this futile system of state-sponsored killing.

This commentary was first published by the N.C. Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. Kristin Collins (pictured at left) is the Director of Public Information for the Center for Death Penalty Litigation.

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First NC death sentence since 2019 is a reminder: Even without executions, the machinery of death cranks on