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. Public hangings were common in North Carolina until the state took over administration of the death penalty in 1910.  

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.

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.

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 offenders awaiting death rose to 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 offenders awaiting execution had their sentences vacated, many received new trials, and most were re-sentenced to life in prison.

Offenders 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, defined as willful, deliberate and premeditated killing or killing while committing another felony. In 1983, the General Assembly gave death row offenders 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.

The last person executed in North Carolina was Samuel Flippen, who was put to death on Aug. 18, 2006 for the murder of his 2-year-old stepdaughter.

Execution chamber - Old Central Prison

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 offenders the option to choose death by lethal injection. Under this provision, the warden of Central Prison must be notified in writing by the offenders at least five days before the execution that he would prefer to die by lethal injection.

Of the 10 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.

Asphyxiation by lethal gas

Lethal Gas Execution Chamber

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 was equipped with a metal container beneath the seat. Cyanide was placed in this container. A metal canister on the floor under the seat was filled with a sulfuric acid solution.

When executioners turned three keys in the control room, an electric switch caused the bottom of the cyanide container to open, allowing the cyanide to fall into the sulfuric acid solution to produce the lethal gas. Inhalation of this gas rendered the victim unconscious. Death usually occurred within six to 18 minutes.

Chair used for lethal gas executions

A heart monitor attached to the offender was read in the control room. After the warden pronounced the offender dead, ammonia was pumped into the execution chamber to neutralize the gas. Exhaust fans then pumpped the inert fumes from the chamber into two scrubbers that contained water and served as a neutralizing agent. Members of the prison staff then entered the chamber and removed the body for release to the county medical examiner.

A statutory amendment was signed into law October 29, 1998, eliminating execution by lethal gas and made lethal injection North Carolina's only method of execution.

After execution by lethal gas was eliminated by the state legislature, the wooden execution chair 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.