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
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-4988-7
    Published: January 2019
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-5754-5
    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

“An outstanding work of cultural, legal, and political history. . . . Lethal State brims with thematically rich insights that have much to offer scholars in the humanities and social sciences asking questions about race, violence, and modernity in the United States.”--Journal of Southern History

“It is important to understand how we got here – how the death penalty burned itself out once before . . . only to be resurrected through populist tough-on-crime and race-laden rhetoric. Seth Kotch’s new book, lucid, readable, richly textured, and compelling, develops that history, focusing on punishment in North Carolina after the Civil War, through the 1970s.”--Criminal Law and Criminal Justice Books

"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

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)