In recent years, UNC-Chapel Hill has been taking seriously its obligation to educate its students in the art of civil discussion of contentious issues that will require their understanding as they move into leadership roles. Going far beyond simply requiring all incoming students to read and discuss a book espousing controversial ideas, for the 2007-08 academic year Carolina instituted a campuswide consideration of the death penalty that continues in many forms through April.

While some events, such as discussion of Sister Helen Prejean’s Death of Innocents, were for students only, the schooland Carolina Performing Artshas invited the general public to a wide array of art displays, theatrical performances, panel discussions and lectures in a yearlong series called “Criminal/ Justice: The Death Penalty Examined.”

Prejean, an icon of the anti-death-penalty movement, will give a talk in Memorial Hall on Feb. 25, and the Department of Dramatic Art will perform the stage version of her Dead Man Walking in April.

While UNC-Chapel Hill is not as insular or as corporatized as Duke, it has become harder and harder to view it as our beloved university, rather than the Gargantua that gobbled the town that had loved it. A visit to Wilson Library is generally good medicine for this sad dissociated condition, and so it proved on a balmy, spring-like day last week. Wilson is home to the UNC Libraries’ Special Collections, which includes the treasure trove of original materials comprising the Southern Historical Collection.

The SHC has put up two displays and a pamphlet on “Facing Controversy: Struggling with Capital Punishment in North Carolina.” Curator Tim West and graduate student Biff Hollingsworth have done an excellent job in providing a concise historical overview of the death penalty in North Carolina in the timeline pamphlet they’ve written, and in the text and image panels they have produced for display at Wilson and Davis libraries. (Although these panels make heavy use of original documents from the collections, no actual documents are on view, so there is no compelling reason to make a special trip to see them. The same material should become available with greater convenience at in late February.)

On Tuesday, Feb. 5, SHC sponsored a panel discussion that was also titled “Facing Controversy: Struggling with Capital Punishment in America.” Despite the difficult topic, the panel provided a tonic worth having gone indoors forthat of intelligent people engaged in “civil, informed discourse.” The historical perspective was deepened for the mixed audience of students and townspeople by the first speaker of the evening, Seth Kotch, a doctoral candidate at UNC who is writing his dissertation on the death penalty in North Carolina during the 20th century. As Kotch chronicled the changes in the laws and in the public sentiment they reflect, he emphasized that today’s struggles over the death penalty and the manner of its application are just the latest episode in a history of struggle dating to the formation of the Colony of Carolina. Whether, for what crimes, and how we should carry out this ultimate punishment, have been matters of anguished soul-searching and passionate advocacy for centuries.

The panel’s second speaker, state Sen. Ellie Kinnaird (D-Orange), who has been a leading opponent of the death penalty for many years, expressed amazement to learn of that long history, to which she has added so much since her 1996 election to the General Assembly. (“My office is a hot-bed of rebels,” she said, modestly.) Kinnaird reminds one of those great abolitionist ladies of the 19th century, with their clear eyes, calm manners, powerful consciences and stainless-steel backbones. As she recites facts and illustrative anecdotes to support abolition of the death penalty, she is so persuasive that you begin to feel she will inevitably reach her goal. Fewer than 1 percent of convicted killers receive the death penalty in North Carolinawhy do they get it? She cited a recent study conducted by UNC professors and law school graduates who examined every death penalty case in the state and found that the factors were geography, race and poverty (“I don’t believe we’ve ever executed a rich person,” Kinnaird noted dryly). She tells the story of a mentally deficient man being asked what he wanted for his last meal. The man told the jailer, adding that he’d save his dessert for later, after the execution. Can it be right, Kinnaird asks, to execute a person who doesn’t understand that there will be no “later”? But at bottom all her arguments and cases come down to: “Is it wrong for the citizens to kill, but not wrong for the state to kill?”

An alternative view was provided by the third panelist, Rex Gore, district attorney for the state’s 13th judicial district in southeastern N.C. Gore, who maintains a Web site and blog at, doesn’t like the death penalty, but he believes in it for the most heinous crimes, such as ones he describes memorably on his site. He speaks empathetically about how painful capital punishment cases are for everyone, noting that “We make it hardand it should be hardto execute somebody. … It is good that we struggle with the death penalty, because it is the most important decision.” He points out that as an attorney for the state, he can only enforce the laws that legislators have passed, and he says that his experiences have led him to believe that, among many people, there is a feeling that there must be “the possibility of the ultimate punishment for the worst crimes.”

“We will continue to struggle with the death penalty as long as it is in existence. How long it will be in existence is a legislative call, and the ultimate decision is with the people,” said Gore. From the range of comments during the discussion, it became clear that some in the audience had decided what was right or necessary, while others were just beginning to wrestle the moral monster.

A few more images to help with the struggle can be seen at the Ackland Art Museum, in a small exhibition called Perspectives on Public Justice. Here is Jacob Lawrence’s screen-printed portrait of the hanged John Brownlegally executed traitor, or a martyr murdered for his convictions? Here’s a copy of Hogarth’s frenzied 1747 engraving showing riotous holiday-making at a hanging at Tyburn.

These turn the stomach, but not as badly as Sue Coe’s large drawing, “Poultry Packing Fire,” based on the 1991 incident in Hamlet, N.C., in which 26 workers died in a fire because management had locked the exits. The picture forces us to remember that no murder charges could be brought on that workplace safety violation. Is that an argument for the wider application of capital punishment? The civilized examination of this and related questions will continue on the Carolina campus through the spring.

For a full schedule, see Confirm event in advance; some slippage from published schedules has occurred.