Lethal State

A History of the Death Penalty in North Carolina

By Seth Kotch

320 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 10 halftones, 1 graph, 3 tables

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-4987-0
    Published: February 2019
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-4986-3
    Published: February 2019
  • eBook ISBN: 978-1-4696-4988-7
    Published: January 2019

Justice, Power, and Politics

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Awards & distinctions

A 2019 Choice Outstanding Academic Title

For years, American states have tinkered with the machinery of death, seeking to align capital punishment with evolving social standards and public will. Against this backdrop, North Carolina had long stood out as a prolific executioner with harsh mandatory sentencing statutes. But as the state sought to remake its image as modern and business-progressive in the early twentieth century, the question of execution preoccupied lawmakers, reformers, and state boosters alike.

In this book, Seth Kotch recounts the history of the death penalty in North Carolina from its colonial origins to the present. He tracks the attempts to reform and sanitize the administration of death in a state as dedicated to its image as it was to rigid racial hierarchies. Through this lens, Lethal State helps explain not only Americans' deep and growing uncertainty about the death penalty but also their commitment to it.

Kotch argues that Jim Crow justice continued to reign in the guise of a modernizing, orderly state and offers essential insight into the relationship between race, violence, and power in North Carolina. The history of capital punishment in North Carolina, as in other states wrestling with similar issues, emerges as one of state-building through lethal punishment.

About the Author

Seth Kotch is assistant professor of American studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
For more information about Seth Kotch, visit the Author Page.


“No substantial volume has been devoted to the history of capital punishment in a single American state until Professor Kotch provided his detailed history of the death penalty in North Carolina.”--North Carolina Historical Review

“Kotch convincingly captures the history and legacy of North Carolina’s intersection of lynching and capital punishment, including its relatively on-again, off-again embrace of the latter from the colonial era to the current day.”--ICCA Journal

“Seth Kotch’s impressive work focuses on the sinister impulse he sees as having driven both lynchings and executions in North Carolina. The book provides a harsh and enlightening history of the relationship between race and punishment in the State. . . . The level of detail and breadth of the information presented are impressive; the author’s arguments are convincingly made; his presentation of the material is compelling.”--Social Forces

"With poignant prose and an acute analytical eye, Kotch has written a harrowing and unforgettable history that exposes the inequity of the death penalty in the United States. Some of this eye-opening and moving story is peculiar to North Carolina, but, alas, much of it is not. Anyone interested in how the death penalty has been applied and why it continues to be applied in the United States should read Lethal State."--W. Fitzhugh Brundage, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

"Few historical studies have so thoroughly refocused my understanding of one of the foremost issues of our time: the criminal justice system's persistently inequitable treatment of African American men. Beautifully and passionately written, Lethal State should convince any fence-sitter that the arbitrary, utterly unjustly administered death penalty should finally become thing of the past, as it has in every Western nation except the U.S."--Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

"Seth Kotch fills his well-documented and exhaustively researched book about North Carolina’s history of executions with spectacular tales of the state’s failure to mete out justice reliably and to treat persons of color and the poor fairly. This book should be required reading for anyone considering the legacy and future of capital punishment in the United States."--Ken Rose, The Center for Death Penalty Litigation

Multimedia & Links


Kotch talks to Frank Stasio of WUNC's The State of Things in an episode called "Lethal State: North Carolina's Delicate Dance with Death." (6/19/2019, running time 19:04)