Death Penalty Debated, 1970s

North Carolina’s execution chair, used between 1893 and 1961. It is now part of the collection at the N.C. Museum of HistoryOn June 1, 1977, a revision to the law became effective in North Carolina that reestablished the death penalty for first-degree murder.

Capital punishment’s roots in North Carolina extend all the way back to the colonial era, but it wasn’t until 1910 that the state took over administration of the practice from the counties and began using electrocution instead of hanging. Asphyxiation by lethal gas was promoted by several legislators in the 1920s and 1930s as more humane, became the preferred method in 1936.

In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment because its imposition was arbitrary. That led the N.C. Supreme Court to rule that death penalty for murder, rape, arson, and burglary would be mandatory. That ruling, in turn, was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976 and the convictions of 120 people then on death row were vacated.

Though the General Assembly reauthorized the practice in 1977, the next execution did not take place in North Carolina until 1984. Inmates could choose between death by lethal gas or lethal injection until 1998, when lethal injection became the only authorized method.

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