Book Review: Lethal state: A history of the death penalty in North Carolina

Published date01 June 2023
Date01 June 2023
Subject MatterBook Reviews
Nonetheless, Godsey deserves credit for attempting to shine a light on the blind spots in criminal
justice prosecutions, especially because he does so with a humility that invites criminal justice actors
to consider the presence of such blind spots without any condemnation. Godseys book may not be a
panacea for all of the injustices in our system, but it is a positive attempt to show the way toward change.
Kotch, S. (2019). Lethal state: A history of the death penalty in North Carolina. Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press. 307
pp. $27.95. ISBN: 978-1-4696-4987-0.
Reviewed by: Kathleen M. Donovan ,St. John Fisher College, Rochester, NY, USA
DOI: 10.1177/0734016819879480
The story of the death penalty in North Carolina, like that of the nation generally, is a tragic one,
f‌illed with pain, rage, and fear. These elements bubble throughout Seth Kotchsf‌irst book, Lethal
State, and leave the reader more sensitive to the complicated historical, legal, and political structures
supporting capital punishment today. More deliberately, the narrative highlights the importance of
race and class when it comes to who gets the ultimate punishment and why. A more conservative
reader might note that many if not most of those executed were guilty and that retribution is a legit-
imate goal of punishment. But Lethal State makes clear that the history of capital punishment is inex-
tricably linked with the history of race in America and adds to a growing body of work that reveals
how, in many ways, the modern criminal justice system is the new Jim Crow.
The evidence Kotch provides in weaving this narrative is both wide-ranging and meticulous. The
seamless use of newspapers, governorspapers, political and charitable reports, academic research,
and capital punishment databases is one of the strengths of the text. In the end, one cannot escape the
number of executions, the words of those administering it, or the images of those being executed,
some innocently, in the name of racial social control. When combined with evidence of false convic-
tions and the questionable humanity of various execution methods, it leads Kotch to rightly question
whether the death penalty is a history of failure”—and answer in the aff‌irmative.
The text is organized in overlapping but chronological chapters, from the statesf‌irst recorded
education in 1726 to the modern era, in which old age is the most common method of execution
for the states death row inmates. The introduction provides a quick overview of the death
penalty, and its deeply rootedhistory in racial slavery, from colonial times to the Civil War.
This relationship is explored more fully in Chapter 1, which covers the Reconstruction era into
the f‌irst half of the 20th century. Those with some prior knowledge of racial bias and the death
penalty today may f‌ind this to be the most interesting chapter, as it takes a detailed look at how
and why lynchings and state executions reinforced one another. Kotch argues that these two
forms of punishmentboth of which took place in the form of hangingworked together to main-
tain White supremacy. Indeed, it is hard to argue with the states governor (The courts in the land are
all in control of the whites, so there is never an excuse for lynching) and White citizens (Will you
promise us if we dont kill him that he will be convicted and hanged?) when they say so themselves.
Chapter 2 argues that spectacle and shifting cultural values during the Progressive era drove
changes in the death penalty. Kotch outlines how, in addition to moving it indoors and limiting
who could view the execution, North Carolina switched f‌irst to electrocution and then to lethal
gas. These attempts at creating a more dignif‌ied death, whether achieved or not, reveal the diff‌icult
nature of administering the death penalty. This is further complicated by the fact that race continued
to be central to the issue, as revealed by the notoriously overwrittenand racist media coverage, and
the whitening of witnesses to executions, even as the number of executed persons remained dispro-
portionately Black.
Book Reviews 267

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