History of Capital Punishment in North Carolina
The administration of the death penalty in North Carolina dates back to Colonial America. English Common Law and legislation enacted by North Carolina's Colonial Assembly governed the administration of capital punishment.
In 1910, the power to execute criminals was taken away from local governments and assumed by the state. On March 18, 1910, Walter Morrison, a laborer from Robeson County, became the first man to die in the state's electric chair at Central Prison. Between 1910 and 1961, the state executed another 361 persons.
In the 1972 Furman vs. Georgia case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional when juries were permitted to exercise unbridled discretion in imposing the death penalty. In light of that decision, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty would be mandatory for certain crimes. The number of inmates sprung to an all-time high of 120, at that time the highest number in the nation. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the state's mandatory death penalty in 1976 in the case of Woodson vs. North Carolina. The 120 inmates awaiting execution had their sentences vacated, many received new trials, and most were re-sentenced to life in prison.
Execution of Wilfred Roseboro, Iredell County, 1903. Public hangings were common in North Carolina until the state took over administration of the death penalty in 1910. (NC Division of Archives and History)
All of those currently awaiting execution in North Carolina were convicted and sentenced under the state's revised capital punishment law which became effective June 1, 1977. The revised law restored the death penalty for first degree murder, which is defined as willful, deliberate and premeditated killing or killing while committing another felony. In 1983, the General Assembly gave death row inmates the option to choose death by lethal injection. In 1998, the General Assembly eliminated execution by lethal gas, making lethal injection the state's only method of execution.
Past execution methods - Electrocution and Lethal Gas
Since the state of North Carolina assumed responsibility for capital punishment from the counties in 1910, there have been three methods to carry out executions, all at Central Prison in Raleigh.
For the first 28 years, the state used the electric chair. In 1936, the state first used the gas chamber. In 1983, persons to be executed were allowed to choose lethal injection or the gas chamber. In 1998, lethal injection became the state's only method of execution.
In the state's first execution on March 18, 1910, Walter Morrison was put to death in the electric chair. Morrison had been sentenced to death in Robeson Superior Court for rape. The electric chair continued to be used until July 1, 1938, when Wiley Brice, sentenced to death in Alamance Superior Court for murder, was executed.
While the electric chair was still in use as late as 1938, the state had begun using the gas chamber several years earlier. Allen Foster, sentenced to death in Hoke County for murder, became the first person put to death in the state's gas chamber on January 24, 1936.
In 1983, the General Assembly gave death row inmates the option to choose death by lethal injection. Under this provision, the warden of Central Prison must be notified in writing by the inmate at least five days before the execution that he would prefer to die by lethal injection.
Of the ten persons put to death in North Carolina between 1984 and the elimination of lethal gas in 1998, two chose execution by lethal gas. In 1994, David Lawson did not request lethal injection and became the first person in 30 years to die by lethal gas. Four years later, Ricky Lee Sanderson became the last person executed in the state's gas chamber.
A statutory amendment was signed into law October 29, 1998, eliminating execution by lethal gas and making lethal injection North Carolina's only method of execution.
Asphyxiation by lethal gas
The execution chamber is an airtight compartment. A wooden chair with high back, arm rests and foot rest was mounted against the chamber's back wall. A steel door is to the left of the chair (as viewed from the witness chamber), and the control room is to the right.
The chair is equipped with a metal container beneath the seat. Cyanide is placed in this container. A metal canister is on the floor under the container filled with sulfuric acid solution.
When executioners turn three keys in the control room, an electric switch causes the bottom of the cyanide container to open allowing the cyanide to fall into the solution and produce the lethal gas. Inhalation of this gas renders the victim unconscious. Death usually occured within six to eighteen minutes.
A heart monitor will be attached to the inmate which can be read in the control room by a staff member. After the warden pronounces the inmate dead, ammonia is pumped into the execution chamber to neutralize the gas. Exhaust fans then pump the inert fumes from the chamber into two scrubbers that contain water and serve as a neutralizing agent. Members of the prison staff then enter the chamber and remove the body for release to the county medical examiner.
After execution by lethal gas was eliminated by the state legislature in 1998, the wooden execution chair then in use was removed from the chamber at Central Prison. The chair is now part of the collection at the North Carolina Museum of History and is occasionally displayed.