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The race to death row

Last Wednesday, California Governor Gavin Newsom issued an executive order that effectively halted capital punishment in the golden state. In a state with 737 individuals in death row—more than six in 10 of whom are Black or Latinx—with 25 who have exhausted their appeals, the deadline to sign off on their lethal injections would have been at the start of April of this year. Without Governor Newsoms’ moratorium on the death penalty, California would have resumed state-ordered executions after a 13-year hiatus.

As one of the 30 remaining states that continue to practice capital punishment, our state of North Carolina holds 141 prisoners in death row. More than 63 percent of them are people of color, despite the fact that they make up less than 30 percent of North Carolina’s population. Moreover, nearly 20 percent of those on death row were sentenced to death by all-white juries. The most recent addition in the row occurred less than four weeks ago. The state has not carried out an execution, however, since 2006.

The faults that Governor Newsom’s cited in his decision against the death penalty emanate far beyond California’s borders. Here in North Carolina, more than 1,000 individuals have been sentenced to death row since 1910. In North Carolina, as in California, the arbitrary nature by which the death penalty is applied comes at the detriment of people of color. The chances of receiving the death penalty in this state increases 3.5 times if the defendant’s victim is white. Race is far from the only way to characterize capital punishment, but it is one for which such blatant statistics exist. 

The chance of incriminating the wrong individual also remains uncomfortably substantiated. Earlier this year, a federal appeals court ruled that Charles Ray Finch, who was sentenced to death row in North Carolina 42 years ago, was “actually innocent” of his murder charge. With the undercurrents of racism and unreliability that explicitly dominate the process, capital punishment creates a game of racial Russian roulette out of the criminal justice system that is supposedly meant to protect our citizens.

Beyond North Carolina’s capital punishment policies, racial bias is the signature thread that winds throughout the state’s criminal justice system. In the state, black students are almost six times more likely to be arrested in school than their white peers—among the worst in the United States. This, in addition to the fact that half of all referrals to the criminal justice system come from schools, is representative of a state that falls just short of legally codifying the school to prison pipeline for children of color. Turning a blind eye to the disproportionate placement of people of color in prisons is unjust, yet remaining ignorant to the pathway towards execution that we push them towards is inhumanly cruel. 

The inhumanity of state-sanctioned killing continues, however, to enjoy washed down portrayals in popular entertainment, such that most of us are more aware of who is sentenced to die in our favorite television show than in the state we reside in. Even worse, is the continued perpetuation of the myth that life-long imprisonment is a waste of taxpayer money, all while remaining ignorant to the fact that the death penalty costs higher—by more than a factor of 18 in California

Capital punishment is a barbaric precipice of a criminal justice system already marred by racism and classism. The central ethos to its existence—punishment for the killing of a life—is diluted by contradiction: If a person kills another, it runs contrary to the rule of law, yet when the state does it, it is the rule of law. 

Even more shameful than North Carolina’s continued practice of the death penalty, is our complacency towards it. For most of us, we view our transitory residence here by the context of the Duke bubble, wholeheartedly ignoring the blaring issues within our local and state governments that govern the community that we chose to be part of. Our status as Duke students extend beyond an Instagram bio headline. As students of Duke, we are students of Durham, students of North Carolina, and residents of state that possesses the authority to murder its citizens. As such, it is imperative that we progress the common interests of the community that has provided us a home. Or, perhaps, maybe it is true that we are nothing but a school where “the rich send their entitled children to trash the city.”

This was written by The Chronicle’s Editorial Board, which is made up of student members from across the University and is independent of the editorial staff. 

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