Colonists brought the practice of capital punishment with them from England. Many of the crimes that had been death-eligible in England – robbery, burglary, arson, counterfeiting, theft, and of course murder – were quickly made capital in the common law. The colonies also executed people for other crimes, including witchcraft, aiding a runaway slave, forgery, and concealing a birth. At this time, there were no prisons, only small local jails incapable of containing criminals for long periods of time. Death was one of few punishments available in the event of a serious crime.
The first known execution in the colonies was that of George Kendall, who was shot to death in Virginia in 1608 for espionage. Most early executions were carried out by hanging, but such methods as breaking on a wheel, hanging in chains, gibbeting, bludgeoning, and burning at the stake were also employed. The first person executed in North Carolina was likely George Senneca, hung on August 26, 1726 for murder. Four hundred and twenty-two others lost their lives in a similar fashion over the next 184 years.
(This figure includes only state-sanctioned killings, not lynchings or other extrajudicial punishments. The image above, taken from the Department of Corrections website, shows the hanging of Wilfred Roseboro in Iredell County in 1903.)
The Early 1900s
The State took over the administration of the death penalty in 1910. For the first time, executions were conducted indoors and away from public view. An electric chair was installed in Central Prison, which had been completed in 1884. The first person to die in the chair was Walter Morrison of Robeson County, who was electrocuted on March 18, 1910 for the crime of rape. The last person to die in the chair was Wiley Brice of Alamance County, electrocuted on July 1, 1938 for murder.
In 1936, North Carolina installed a gas chamber at Central Prison. Allen Foster of Hoke County was the first to die in this manner (January 24, 1936, murder). Three hundred and sixty-two people were executed between 1910 and 1961. The chair from the gas chamber is now part of the collection at the North Carolina Museum of History.
The Modern Era
No one was executed in North Carolina between 1961 and 1984. When executions resumed, inmates were allowed to choose the manner of death – gas or lethal injection. Of the ten people executed between 1984 and 1998, all but two chose lethal injection. Ricky Lee Sanderson of Iredell County was the last person to die in the gas chamber, asphyxiated on January 30, 1998 for murder.
Forty-three people have been executed in North Carolina in the modern era. The first, James W. Hutchins of McDowell County, died by lethal injection on March 16, 1984. On August 18, 2006, Sammy Flippen of Forsyth County became the last person to die in North Carolina’s death chamber.
The only method of execution in North Carolina at the present time is lethal injection. In early 2007, executions were halted due to concerns about the constitutionality of the procedure. The State is working to resume executions as soon as possible. (image source)