North Carolina's general court of justice is a unified judicial system that includes appellate courts (court of appeals) and trial courts (superior court). District court judges are elected to four-year terms; judges above that level are elected for eight years.
The state's highest court, the supreme court, consists of a chief justice and six associate justices. It hears cases from the court of appeals as well as certain cases from lower courts. The court of appeals comprises 12 judges who hear cases in 3-judge panels. Superior courts, in 44 districts, have original jurisdiction in most major civil and criminal cases. There are 99 superior court judges appointed by the governor to eight-year terms. All superior court justices rotate between the districts within their divisions. District courts try misdemeanors, civil cases involving less than $5,000, and all domestic cases. They have no juries in criminal cases, but these cases may be appealed to superior court and be given a jury trial de novo; in civil cases, jury trial is provided on demand.
North Carolina had 31,142 prisoners in state and federal correctional institutions in June 2001, an increase of 0.2% from the previous year. The state's incarceration rate stood at 329 per 100,000 population. In 2001 North Carolina's overall crime rate per 100,000 persons was 4,938.0, including a total of 40,465 violent crimes and 363,777 crimes against property in that year.
North Carolina punishes crime severely. From 1930 to 1997, the state executed 271 persons, and executed 25 people between 1977 and 2003. The US Supreme Court invalidated North Carolina's death penalty statute in 1976, and the sentences of all inmates then on death row reverted to life imprisonment. The state passed a new capital punishment statute in 1977 that apparently assuaged the Court's objections. Two persons were executed in 1984—the state's first executions since 1961. One of the prisoners executed that year, Velma Barfield, was the first woman executed in the US since 1962 and the first in North Carolina since 1944. In 2003, there were 217 persons under sentence of death.