North Carolina, like the rest of the country, faces a huge problem with mass incarceration and excessive punishment. We’ve spent decades amassing the largest prison population in the world, disproportionately black and brown. This epidemic has consequences that are not only economic and political but also moral. Since we first assembled a moral fusion coalition in North Carolina in 2006, we have insisted that a moral agenda must reimagine our legal system, beginning with abolishing the death penalty.

Last week, we saw an example of the kind of bold and decisive action that it will take to reconstruct a legal system based on retribution.

On Thursday, new Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry announced she would not seek the death penalty in one of the Triangle’s most notorious crimes—the February 2015 murders of three Muslim college students. Their neighbor and accused killer, Craig Hicks, has been awaiting trial for more than four years, long before Deberry took office in January. Deberry said she would seek life without parole for Hicks at his trial in July.

The deaths of Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha were horrifying and tragic. Barakat, his wife, and her sister were bright and promising students, pursuing advanced degrees, devoted to serving those in need. Their killings struck fear in the entire Muslim community, which understandably feels that these young people were targeted because of their religion.

With the rise of hate crimes in America and around the world, it is imperative that we make clear that no crime is worse than what these young people suffered. But as their family has made clear, hate cannot drive out hate. As long as the death penalty is still on the table, victims’ families and our communities are compelled to make a false choice between retribution and appearing to diminish the seriousness of the harms committed.

These victims’ family and friends have set an example of how to turn pain and division into love and justice. They created a community center for Muslim youth in a home that Barakat owned. And every year, Muslims, Christians, and Jews gather at the Islamic Association of Raleigh to pack and sort thousands of pounds of food for the needy, donated in honor of the victims. 

The real harm of this unacceptable crime must be addressed, and if Hicks is convicted of first-degree murder, he will spend the rest of his life in prison. But the corrupt and unfair death penalty cannot—and should not—be a salve for these senseless deaths. 

If we hold that killing is wrong, then it surely isn’t ethical to kill another person, creating yet another circle of grieving family members. Those who commit crimes also have children, parents, and loved ones.

But even if you don’t share this moral conviction, the death penalty is clearly a broken system that fails to do justice. It’s a relic of the era of lynching still rife with racial bias, not just against defendants of color but also against jurors of color, who are excluded from serving in capital trials at stunning rates.

The death penalty is reserved almost exclusively for poor people and those with mental illness. The legal records in capital cases are full of examples of abuses of power by prosecutors and investigators. It’s a system that sentences innocent people to die—165 death row prisoners have been exonerated nationwide.

The death penalty also sits at the very top of our society’s hierarchy of excessive punishments. It skews our entire legal system toward hardline responses to crime, away from mercy and toward cruelty. And prosecutors use death as leverage to pressure defendants, some of them innocent, into pleading guilty to avoid capital trials. 

The death penalty is the most potent symbol of a system that seeks to imprison and erase, rather than heal, the broken parts of our society. If we’re going to end the epidemic of mass incarceration, we must end capital punishment.

In Durham, Deberry campaigned on her opposition to the death penalty and other racist punishments—and won a decisive victory. Now, she is keeping her promise to stop using the unjust death penalty. In this case, she showed she is committed to reform not just in the easy cases, but also in the difficult ones. We stand with her and look forward to joining her and others as we press on toward a justice system that works to restore community by addressing real harms without continuing to echo the retributive trauma we inherited.

William J. Barber II is the chief architect of Moral Mondays in North Carolina and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove directs the School for Conversion in Durham. Comment on this story at

One reply on “Op-ed: Satana Deberry Is Right Not to Seek Craig Hicks’s Execution”

  1. You seem to have left out a “not” in the second paragraph. I doubt that William Barbour is in favor of “a legal system based on retribution.”

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