A poem from death row in honor of Covid-19 first responders

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There have not yet been any reported cases of Coronavirus on North Carolina’s death row, but prisons have emerged as some of the worst hot spots for Covid-19. More than 25,000 cases have so far been diagnosed among U.S. prisoners and the numbers are increasing exponentially. Many of the 143 people on North Carolina’s death row are over 60. They are now in danger not just of state-sponsored execution, but of being killed by a virus from which they have nowhere to hide.

Rayford Burke is 62 years old and has lived on North Carolina’s death row since 1993. He was born in Georgia in 1958 and raised in Statesville, North Carolina. He was one of nine children born into a chaotic home with an abusive, alcoholic father. At school, he was a frequent target for bullying. He struggled in class and dropped out in the eighth grade, beginning a downward slide that ended with him receiving a death sentence for the murder of Timothy Morrison.

In prison, Rayford has taken up writing and become a keen observer of the world. He published a poem commemorating the election of Barack Obama. He is also working on his autobiography. Recently, he penned a poem celebrating the people working on the front lines of the Covid-19 pandemic.

With Rayford’s permission, we are sharing his poem with you.

Rayford Burke poem

 

First Responders, by Rayford L Burke

In the midst of a brutal, silent killer, that is raging worldwide;
Countless people has fallen ill, scores of whom has died;
It’s called the coronavirus — or covid nineteen;
A killing force, the like of which, mankind has never seen;
It has no known cure, so to treat it is hit or miss;
Its origin is said to be of snakes and bats, but I really question this;
It supposed began its reign terror, in a place called Wuhan China;
And even as it spread to the United States, Donald Trump downplayed it as minor;
And through that ignorance, it has grown into the monster that it is today;
As it wreaks havoc, and takes lives, across the USA;
But there are silver linings, in every dark cloud;
And in this case it is the heroes, of whom we’re all so proud;
They have no superpowers, and no they cannot fly;
But they’re fighting hard to save our lives, though they themselves may die;
And, in fact, many of them this deadly disease has taken;
But they’re forever in our hearts, and will never be forsaken;
They’re known as “First Responders,” resilient women and men;
Many of whom has survived the virus, to brave the frontlines again;
Putting their own families at risk, doing what they were trained to do;
Giving their all, despite their fears, to see this crisis through;
They’re doctors, nurses, firemen, cops, and the helpers of people in need;
Preachers, teachers, even sanitary workers, they’re all a very rare breed;
And though all glory be to God, we praise our heroes in spades;
None of us could ever thank you enough, for the sacrifices that you’ve made.

Dedicated to all first responders in the United States and around the world

 

A Covid-19 death sentence showcases an inhumane and illogical punishment system

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Faye Brown
Faye Brown

Last week, the state announced that an unnamed prisoner had become the first person to die from a Covid-19 outbreak at North Carolina Women’s Prison. The person was Faye Brown, and her death is the end of a 45-year story that demonstrates the cruelty and excess of our punishment system.

In a humane system, this 67-year-old woman who reformed herself in every way possible would have gotten a second chance at life in the free world. In that world, she would have had at least the possibility of protecting herself from a deadly virus. But in our system, which prides itself on unending punishment at any cost, a life sentence turned into a death sentence.

Brown earned a cosmetology degree in prison and, for many years, held a full time job at a cosmetology school. Because of her clean disciplinary record, she was in minimum custody and earned the privilege of work release. She was beloved by people outside and inside prison, becoming like a mother to many incarcerated women. “She was everybody’s confidant and friend,” one woman told the News & Observer.

She spent two-thirds of her life paying for a crime she committed 1975. At 22 years old, Faye Brown was one of three people involved in a bank robbery in Martin County. No one was injured in the robbery, but shortly afterward, a highway patrolman stopped their car. In a split second, one of the men in the car shot and killed Trooper Guy Thomas Davis Jr. 

There was no evidence that Brown planned or participated in the trooper’s killing, but she was convicted of first-degree murder under North Carolina’s felony murder rule. The rule says that if you’re involved in a crime that leads to murder, you’re as culpable as the person who pulls the trigger. It’s an unforgiving rule that has sent several people who did not kill to North Carolina’s death row. Some of them remain there today.

Brown’s conviction happened during an era when racial disparities in the criminal punishment system were even more glaring than they are today, so the fact that she and her co-defendants were black, and the slain trooper was white, almost surely contributed to the lack of mercy she was shown.

In North Carolina at that time, a first-degree murder conviction came with an automatic death sentence. But a few years later, the U.S. Supreme Court declared North Carolina’s mandatory death penalty unconstitutional, and Brown’s sentence was changed from death to life. Today, life sentences come with no possibility of parole. But at that time, a life sentence meant a maximum of 80 years and could be reduced with good behavior credits. 

Brown had good behavior credits in spades, and in 2009, a judge ordered her release. However, the higher courts blocked her release after a political outcry, and created new law saying that good behavior didn’t apply to life sentences, dooming not just Brown but many other prisoners too. 

Then-governor Beverly Perdue was outraged at the idea that Brown might leave prison. “This is not how government and the courts are supposed to work for the people of North Carolina,” Perdue said. “This is wrong. I’ve been in politics a long time, and I have never been this disgusted with the system in my life.”

In fact, Brown’s release is exactly how the system is supposed to work, if it’s about justice instead of punishment for punishment’s sake. It should ensure public safety by incarcerating dangerous people and helping them reform. Once they can demonstrate that they are no longer a threat to society, they should be able to return to productive lives on the outside.

Instead, Brown was told that one youthful mistake was the end for her. She would never get another shot at freedom, no matter how hard she worked to change her life. 

When the pandemic began creeping into prisons, advocates at the ACLU and other organizations began raising alarms, asking for the release of older and medically vulnerable people who were no longer dangerous. If anyone fit that category, it was Faye Brown. 

But our system chose to keep her in prison despite the risks. We as a society chose to let her die rather than show even the smallest bit of mercy.

—May 13, 2020

NC Supreme Court sends a message to judges: Start taking jury discrimination seriously

Justices' benches at the Supreme Court of the State of North Carolina

In these days of COVID, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by bad news. But we shouldn’t forget to celebrate good news, and we’ve had a little of that in the past week. On Friday, the North Carolina Supreme Court issued a decision that sends a clear message: North Carolina’s courts must finally begin to take the exclusion of black jurors from criminal trials seriously.

The decision says that, when a person on trial suggests that a prosecutor struck a  juror because of the juror’s race, the courts must fully investigate. They must consider the history of disproportionate jury strikes in the county, and compare the treatment of white people and people of color in the jury pool to see if it’s been equal.

If these sound like no brainers, that’s because they are. This is the least the courts can do to begin to end the decades-long practice of denying people of color a voice in the criminal punishment system.

But the reality has been that, despite exhaustive studies proving that jury discrimination is a statewide problem, judges across North Carolina have not acknowledged the problem and have often dismissed allegations of jury discrimination out of hand. In this 6-1 decision, the Supreme Court has signaled that era might be coming to a long-overdue end.

For all the details about the decision and what it means, read CDPL’s press release.

—May 6, 2020

COVID Lessons: Public safety means letting go of extreme punishment

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Durham DA Satana Deberry
Durham DA Satana Deberry

COVID-19 is teaching society many lessons. One of them is that public safety doesn’t always mean locking people up for as much time as possible. Right now, public safety means letting people go home.

With the number of infected prisoners and guards growing quickly, reducing incarcerated populations protects us all — because once the virus spreads inside a prison, it doesn’t stay there. Prisons are like small cities. Many people go in and out every day: staff, defense lawyers, law enforcement, doctors, and many more. If a virus is in a prison, it threatens the free world too. No matter how much we try to deny the humanity of prisoners, we are all connected.

Public officials are being forced to take action.

First, many county jails began to reduce their populations. This was the obvious place to start, since jails hold people who have not yet been convicted  — and many are in jail not because they present grave threats to society, but because they can’t afford to pay bail.

Now, they’ve started taking bolder steps. Gov. Roy Cooper announced plans to release about 500 people who are at high risk for the virus, including pregnant women and people who are sick and elderly. It’s a shame it took a deadly virus for our society to see that people in these categories shouldn’t be kept in prison.

Perhaps most notable, Durham District Attorney Satana Deberry agreed to the early release of nine prisoners and announced her intention to consider other motions for early release. Though they don’t use it frequently, district attorneys have the power to agree to settlements and early release in cases where a defendant has been convicted, as long as a judge approves the deal.

Considering the immense power that district attorneys wield to put people behind bars, it’s only fair for them to also use their power to reexamine sentences when circumstances have changed. Occasionally, they even do this in death penalty cases.

In the past few years, district attorneys have agreed to remove a handful of people from death row, letting them instead serve sentences of life without parole. The settlements helped right wrongs including race discrimination, a death sentence for a man with severe mental illness, and disparate sentences for people involved in the same crime.

It’s often easier for district attorneys to let convictions stand than to reopen cases, but it’s not always what’s best for society. We hope more DAs will show the courage Deberry has displayed in her willingness to reconsider old decisions in light of new circumstances. 

As the coronavirus has shown us so clearly, it’s not always safest to push for the most severe punishment. 

—April 15, 2020

In the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, let’s deem the death penalty nonessential work

NC death row
The execution viewing area at Central Prison in Raleigh, Photo by Scott Langley, deathpenaltyphoto.org

In the midst of a Coronavirus pandemic, society is forced to decide which work is essential. Across the United States, that question is now being applied to countless enterprises — including the death penalty. Is it essential for states to kill people?

Eighteen executions are scheduled between now and the end of the year in Texas, Missouri, Ohio and Tennessee. Countless death penalty trials are also planned across the country, including in North Carolina.

The courts are likely to call most or all of them off because, right now, if our society wants to kill, we must risk harming innocent people too. That has always been true, but the Coronavirus allows us to see and feel that risk more concretely.

Texas has already called off two executions. In mid-March, John Hummel and Tracy Beatty had their executions delayed indefinitely. At the time, visitors had already been barred from the state’s prisons and the nation was at the beginning of massive community spread. In those conditions, the idea of bringing together a group of people in a confined space to carry out a lethal injection was rightly deemed absurd 

What’s unbelievable is that, in both cases, prosecutors opposed the delay of the executions. One told the court there was “no evidence” that Coronavirus would affect the state’s ability to carry out an execution, a statement that reveals just how deeply irrational the death penalty is.

Had the executions been carried out, prison staff and witnesses would have been forced to pack themselves together in tiny rooms. The families of the people being executed might have been denied a final visit, or been forced to choose between saying goodbye to their loved ones or possibly contracting a deadly virus. All to kill a person who no longer presents any threat to society. 

In any situation, some people will cling to their old ideas. But in this exceptional time when the death penalty has come to a shuddering halt, it’s possible that many people will gain a new perspective.

Maybe when we emerge from this time in our cocoons, society will be transformed. Maybe we will understand that the law of nature is far more powerful than the law of people, and that the safety the death penalty promises is an illusion. Maybe we will finally see that humans don’t need to do the work of killing. 

— April 1, 2020

Even amid the chaos of coronavirus, states still moving away from the death penalty

As we fight a global pandemic, it feels more absurd than ever before to devote the resources of any state to trying to kill people.

Colorado state capitol

This week, some much-needed good news came out of Colorado. Gov. Jared Polis signed a bill ending the death penalty and commuting the sentences of the state’s three remaining death row prisoners. His signature made Colorado the tenth state since 2007 to decide that the death penalty isn’t necessary to maintain public safety and does more to perpetuate injustice than to ensure justice. 

Right now, with Covid-19 bearing down, most states and local governments are focusing on short-term efforts to cut jail populations and release some of the scores of people who are behind bars only because they can’t afford to pay bail. But Colorado has taken a step at the other end of the spectrum, joining a national movement away from the death penalty.

As public opinion turns against the death penalty, almost of half of U.S. states no longer have the death penalty on the books. It’s past time for North Carolina to join them in abandoning this flawed and ineffective policy. 

In North Carolina, a 2019 poll found that when voters were offered a broad range of alternatives to the death penalty, only about a quarter of them favored the death penalty. And nearly three-quarters said it’s likely an innocent person has been executed in North Carolina. In the past few decades, ten people sentenced to death in North Carolina have been exonerated. Ten innocent people on death row is a good enough reason to end the death penalty on its own.

Like North Carolina, Colorado’s death penalty was racially skewed. In a state where just 4 percent of the population is African American, all three men on its death row were black. In North Carolina, more than 140 people are living under sentences of death. Sixty percent are people of color, compared with only about 30 percent of the North Carolina population.

Also like North Carolina, Colorado had become deeply uneasy about the death penalty and long ago ceased executions. The people on its death row were sitting year after year, decade after decade, waiting for an execution that was unlikely to be carried out.

Yet, even when no one’s being executed and very few people are being sentenced to death, the death penalty has an outsize effect on a state’s criminal punishment system. It adds millions in yearly costs and skews the whole system toward harsher penalties. And it allows the state to threaten vulnerable suspects with death to assure their compliance, a pressure tactic that sometimes persuades even innocent people to confess. 

As we fight a global pandemic, it feels more absurd than ever before to devote the resources of any state to trying to kill people. We sincerely hope that, once this health crisis is over, North Carolina will follow Colorado’s lead and turn to endeavors that support life rather than death.

— March 25, 2020

Echoes of Central Park 5 in NC: Children were threatened with the execution chamber to force murder confessions; decades later, two remain in prison

Christopher Bryant testifying before the N.C. Innocence Commission

The five boys were 14 and 15 years old when they were taken to the Winston-Salem police station. The cops wanted them to confess to the murder of Nathaniel Jones, a 61-year-old man who’d been beaten, robbed and left tied up on his carport, then died of a heart attack. The boys said they knew nothing about the crime.

Detectives separated the children and interrogated them hour after hour, without lawyers or their parents there to help them. Police threatened them and told them that if they confessed, they’d be allowed to go home. One detective described the process of death by lethal injection. “Hold out your arm,” the armed officer said to the child. “That’s the vein.” 

The terrified boys didn’t know that children aren’t eligible for the death penalty. Believing it was their only way out of the interrogation room, all five broke down and confessed.  A sixth child, a girl, was also interrogated by nearly a dozen officers until she agreed to falsely testify that she witnessed the boys committing the crime. The boys were convicted and sent to prison for what one judge called a “relentless, remorseless, conscienceless” crime.

You might have missed this story amid the chaos of Coronavirus, but last week, the North Carolina Innocence Commission found enough evidence to order a hearing on whether all five were wrongly convicted of Jones’ murder in 2002. A three-judge panel will now decide whether to exonerate them. 

It’s a case with eerie echoes of the Central Park Five. A psychologist called the similarities “astonishing.” However, in this case, the boys got even harsher penalties for their coerced confessions. Three of them — Christopher Bryant, Jermal Tolliver and Dorrell Brayboy — got 14 years for second-degree murder. But two brothers, Nathaniel Cauthen and Rayshawn Banner, got life without parole and are still behind bars.

The story that the Winston-Salem Journal wrote about the brothers’ sentencing in 2004 is heartbreaking to read now. Nathaniel and Rayshawn sat silently through the trial. The jury deliberated just one hour before convicting them of first-degree murder. The judge called them remorseless. And then, just before their sentence was pronounced, Nathaniel asked to speak.

“I (already) spent two years of my life in jail for something I didn’t do,” Cauthen cried, flailing his arms, his voice rising with desperation. “I can’t tell you who killed this man. It’s not my fault these people put me in a room and made me say things I didn’t do.”

With tears streaming down his face, he pointed toward prosecutors and a police detective, saying he spent his life “running from these people” who tried to blame him for things he didn’t do. He turned around and spoke to Jones’ family directly.

“I’m sorry that this man lost his life, but I can’t tell you who killed this man,” he said.

This story is a reminder that the North Carolina death penalty is often used to coerce confessions, and that it is frequently wielded against innocent people in cases with flimsy evidence.  (Read CDPL’s report about this widespread abuse of the death penalty.) 

But it’s especially egregious to discover that police are willing to use the death penalty to intimidate, coerce, and wrongly convict children.

During the Innocence Commission hearing, a detective admitted that he described the process of lethal injection to two of the boys — but, he claimed it was “not as a threat.” Only in the delusional, upside-down world of our criminal punishment system could a person make the claim that asking a terrified child to imagine his own execution is not a threat.

The death penalty is most certainly a threat, to our human decency most of all. 

— March 19, 2020

Wake DA pursues death penalty even for people with severe mental illness

Wake DA Lorrin FreemanFor nearly two decades, district attorneys in North Carolina have had discretion to decide which cases are serious enough to warrant the death penalty. In a state where hundreds of murders are committed each year, only a handful of people face capital trials. As public sentiment turns against executions, most N.C. counties haven’t put anyone on trial for the death penalty in more than a decade.

That’s what makes Wake DA Lorrin Freeman’s decisions about the death penalty so egregious. Freeman represents one of the state’s most forward-looking urban counties, yet she pursues the death penalty with the abandon of a 1990s prosecutor ignorant of pesky “modern” concepts like mental illness and racism.

Right now, Freeman is fighting to put Kendrick Gregory on trial for the death penalty — even though he’s in a psychotic state so severe that he refuses to bathe or communicate with his attorneys.

Most of the world has banned the death penalty for people with severe mental illness. In North Carolina, it’s illegal to put a person on trial who is so mentally ill that he can’t understand the proceedings, and Freeman doesn’t dispute that Gregory is acutely psychotic. Freeman’s solution? Force Gregory to take psychiatric medications so she can get her shot at sending him to death row.

In the year before the crime, Gregory was committed to a mental hospital eight times. Doctors have diagnosed him with psychosis and schizoid effective disorder, among other things. Most DAs consider severe mental illness, which impairs a person’s ability to control their actions, understand their crime, and participate in their defense, a reason not to pursue the death penalty. In theory at least, the death penalty is meant to be reserved for the worst crimes and the most culpable defendants, and someone with severe mental illness is clearly less culpable. But, apparently, not to Freeman.

It seems she has little sympathy for people with mental illness, even when they’re innocent. James Blackmon was sentenced to life in prison in 1988, after he confessed to murder while delusional. Police interviewed Blackmon over and over while he was in a mental hospital and wearing a Superman cape. Eventually, they extracted a garbled confession. In addition to claiming responsibility for a four-year-old murder, Blackmon told police he could cause earthquakes and use telepathic powers to control other people.

Blackmon didn’t know the most important details of the crime and, the evidence now shows, was almost certainly in New York at the time. A fingerprint found at the scene matched another man with a long criminal record. And when an eye witness failed to identify Blackmon in a photo lineup, police hid the report of the lineup.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of his innocence, Freeman argued last year that Blackmon should remain in prison because he did not have DNA evidence. Thankfully, the three-judge panel hearing his case disagreed with Freeman and freed Blackmon after more than thirty-five years of wrongful imprisonment. If the case were tried today, Freeman may well have sought the death penalty against Blackmon.

Since Freeman took office in 2014, Wake has sought the death penalty at trial more than any other North Carolina county. And in almost every case, the defendant has been a black man. Freeman would have voters believe she has no choice but to pursue the death penalty, but it’s simply not true. She’s making a conscious choice to put people with severe mental illness on trial for their lives, to fight to keep innocent people in prison, and to disproportionately seek the death penalty against people of color. The citizens of Wake County deserve better.

Henry McCollum & Leon Brown

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Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were intellectually disabled teenagers when they were taken from their home in rural Robeson County, coerced into confessing to a brutal murder they didn’t commit, and sentenced to death. The brothers spent 31 years in prison before DNA testing finally proved them innocent. By the time of their release in 2014, Henry was North Carolina’s longest serving death row prisoner.

Henry McCollum
Henry McCollum at a NCCADP meeting in 2019

[Read more stories of innocent people sentenced to death in North Carolina]

Henry McCollum lived in New Jersey but had come to rural North Carolina to spend time with his mother and his brother, Leon Brown. It was the autumn of 1983. Henry was 19, and Leon was just 15. Henry had been in Robeson County for a few weeks when the body of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie was discovered in a soybean field just a short distance away from his mother’s home. The little girl been raped, and suffocated. Police in the tiny town of Red Springs began interviewing local residents, searching for suspects.

Henry McCollum school photo
1976 school photo of Henry McCollum.

One police officer came across a high school student who repeated a rumor she’d heard at school: Henry McCollum, a teen from out of town, seemed suspicious and might have been involved in the crime. Henry had intellectual disabilities, which may have been why other teens felt he behaved strangely. When officers showed up at his mother’s house, Henry went to the police station voluntarily. It was evening, and a group of law enforcement officers kept him in an interrogation room until late in the night, demanding that Henry tell them about the crime, promising him that if he gave them the facts about the crime, he would be allowed to go home. After four and a half hours of questioning, Henry broke. He told the officers a story filled with details they’d given him, about a rape and murder he had nothing to do with. The officers wrote up a grisly confession and Henry, who could barely comprehend the written document, signed it. And then he asked, “Can I go home now?” He had no idea that he wouldn’t go home again for more than three decades.

As Henry invented the details of the rape, he added other characters to the scene to share responsibility for the awful crime. He said that his brother Leon had been with him, along with two friends. By coincidence, Leon and his mother were already at the police station; they’d come to wait for Henry. Police pulled Leon into another interrogation room, and extracted a confession from him too. Leon, who was more profoundly disabled than Henry, could not even read the document he signed just a half hour after Henry’s confession. It conflicted in significant ways with Henry’s account, and both confessions pointed to two other boys who police later determined could not possibly have been present. Yet, those two confessions — coerced, conflicting, and patently false — became the evidence that prosecutors would use to send two innocent, poor, black, disabled teenagers to death row.

Henry and Leon quickly retracted their confessions, but it was too late. In 1984, a jury sentenced both of them to death. In 1991, they won a new trial, and Leon was resentenced to life in prison. However, Henry was again sentenced to death. His confession was, once again, the key piece of evidence. During his years on death row, Henry’s case became notorious. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia pointed to the brutality of Henry’s crime as a reason to support capital punishment. During North Carolina legislative elections in 2010, Henry’s face showed up on political flyers as an example of a brutal rapist and child killer who deserved to be executed. Henry continued to proclaim his innocence to anyone who would listen.

Finally, Leon wrote to the N.C. Innocence Commission, a state agency that agreed to investigate the case. What they uncovered was shocking. Investigators knew at the time that fingerprints found at the scene didn’t match Henry or Leon, but they never compared the fingerprints to other possible suspects. And just a few weeks after Sabrina Buie’s killing, another young woman was raped and murdered in Red Springs. Joann Brockman, 18, had also been raped, asphyxiated, and left in a field. The culprit was a man named Roscoe Artis, who had a long record of serious assaults against women. Artis lived next to the field where Sabrina’s body was found, yet he had never been investigated as a suspect in her death. The Innocence Commission staff unearthed items that had been left by Sabrina’s body — clothing, beer cans, cigarette butts — and conducted modern DNA testing. They found no DNA belonging to Henry and Leon, but on one cigarette butt, they found a perfect match with Roscoe Artis.

Based on the Commission’s overwhelming evidence of innocence, the brothers were released from prison in 2014. In 2015, then-Gov. Pat McCrory granted the brothers a full pardon of innocence. Also that year, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer cited their case as a reason to outlaw the death penalty.

Today, Henry is rebuilding his life with the help of family. Leon, whose severe disabilities were compounded by the trauma of prison, is living in an institution. Both are pursuing a civil lawsuit against the agencies that wrongly imprisoned them. Roscoe Artis remains in prison, serving a life sentence for Brockman’s murder. He has not been prosecuted for Sabrina’s murder.

Learn more:

Read the Center for Death Penalty Litigation’s in-depth story of Henry and Leon’s dramatic exoneration, read their report Saved From the Executioner

Watch this fascinating one-hour documentary about the case from Death Row Stories (Episode 8)

Read the Marshall Project’s story about what happened to the brothers after their exoneration, The Price of Innocence

Read more stories of innocent people sent to NC death row

Darryl Hunt

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Because of a single juror, Darryl Hunt was spared the death penalty for a rape and murder he did not commit. He was not spared, however, from spending 19 years in prison — ten of those after DNA evidence showed that he was not the culprit.

NC Exoneree Darryl Hunt
Darryl Hunt doing one of many media interviews in his work to end the death penalty.

[Read more stories of innocent people sentenced to death in North Carolina]

In August 1984, Darryl Hunt was an impoverished teenager in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, when police scooped him up and put him into a lineup for a crime he did not commit. A 25-year-old newspaper copy editor, Deborah Sykes, had been raped and stabbed to death while on her way to work. The killing of a young white woman sparked community outrage, and police were eager to make an arrest. A witness came forward to say he’d seen Ms. Sykes with a black man on the morning of the crime. Police created a lineup, and the witness picked Darryl. We now know that police lineups often lead to mistaken identifications and wrongful convictions. In Darryl’s case, that mistaken identification was the beginning of a saga that would lead to two decades in prison and then two decades of activism, fighting the system that had wrongly imprisoned him and so many others.

At his 1985 trial, the main evidence tying Darryl to the crime was the mistaken testimony of people who said they had seen him on the morning of the murder with Sykes or at a hotel disposing of bloody towels. Their identification of Darryl was shaky at best. Another witness, Darryl’s girlfriend, claimed he had confessed to her. She was facing her own prosecution on larceny charges and likely hoped that her testimony in Darryl’s case would result in lighter punishment. Later, she recanted her testimony against Darryl. Darryl testified that he did not know Deborah Sykes and had no involvement with the crime. Darryl was sentenced to life in prison, because of that single juror who refused to make it a unanimous vote for death.

In 1989, Darryl’s conviction was overturned because prosecutors had relied on the girlfriend’s since-recanted statements. Prosecutors offered Darryl a deal. He could be freed by pleading guilty and accepting a sentence of the five years he had already served. He refused to admit to a crime he did not commit. Darryl was retried for murder, and again sentenced to life in prison.

In 1994, scientific advances allowed for DNA testing, which revealed that the DNA of the rapist did not match Darryl’s. In a hearing about the newly discovered DNA, the state changed its story, now insisting that there was more than one assailant and that Darryl killed the victim while another man raped her. The judge ruled in the prosecution’s favor, saying the DNA evidence did not prove his innocence. Darryl remained in prison for another decade.

In 2004, after immense public pressure, the state finally ran the crime scene DNA through a database of people convicted of felonies and found a perfect match — a man who had committed a similar rape just months after Deborah Sykes’ murder. Willard Brown confessed, and Darryl was finally freed. That same year, Darryl received a rare pardon of innocence from the governor.

Darryl spent 19 years in prison after a conviction based on mistaken identification and recanted testimony.

Darryl spent 15 years in prison after his conviction was overturned and he refused a plea deal that would have allowed him to go home.

Darryl spent 10 years in prison after DNA evidence proved he had not assaulted Ms. Sykes.

Between his date of conviction and date of exoneration, 29 people were executed in North Carolina.

Darryl on the day of his exoneration in 2004. Photo by Ted Richardson

Darryl spent the rest of his life advocating to end capital punishment and ensure that no more innocent people get the death penalty in North Carolina. “If I had gotten a death sentence,” he said, “there’s no doubt in my mind I would have been executed.” He founded the Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advocating for the wrongfully convicted supporting people recently released from prison.

In a loss to us all, Darryl died in 2016. He was 51.

Learn more:

Watch the fascinating documentary about Darryl’s 19-year fight for freedom, The Trials of Darryl Hunt

Read a moving piece by Mark Rabil, the lawyer who represented Darryl for 20 years, My Three Decades with Darryl Hunt

Read this beautiful story about the end of Darryl’s life, written by his longtime friend, The Last Days of Darryl Hunt

Read an investigative series about Darryl’s case in the Winston-Salem Journal

See more stories of innocent people sentenced to death in North Carolina

Finding redemption & beauty on North Carolina’s death row

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Last week, I went to visit a man who has lived on North Carolina death row for 19 years. We talked about books and writing and art. He told me about the two plants he dug up from the prison yard and now keeps in his cell.

Each morning, he moves them into a patch of light near the window. He plays classical music, because he read that it helps plants grow. As he tends to them, he thinks of his grandmother. He used to tell her she was crazy to talk to her plants. Now, he’s past 50, about the age his grandmother was in his memory, talking to his own plants on death row.

He reminded me that our work to end the death penalty isn’t just theoretical. It’s about believing in the possibility of every human life. Bryan Stevenson is right: People are so much more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.

We’ve now gone 13 years without an execution in North Carolina, but the death penalty is still a threat. People are still being tried capitally, and after two years without any new death sentences, we had three this year in North Carolina. Our state continues to have one of the nation’s largest death rows – 143 men and women living under death sentences.

But this year was also full of bright spots that give us hope. The North Carolina Supreme Court agreed to take on the legislature’s repeal of the Racial Justice Act, and lawyers for six death row prisoners made historic arguments exposing the ways that race infects the death penalty. Polling, both in North Carolina and nationally, showed that a clear majority of people now prefer alternatives to capital punishment over executions. Another innocent person, once sentenced to death, was exonerated and released from prison in North Carolina. And Henry McCollum, who was North Carolina’s longest serving death row prisoner when he was exonerated in 2014, joined our Coalition and began attending meetings.

Exonerated North Carolina death row prisoner Henry McCollum
Henry McCollum at a NCCADP meeting in 2019

As we end 2019, let’s celebrate our victories and renew our commitment. Let’s also remember who we’re fighting for: People who have caused great pain but still have something to give. People who sometimes find redemption even in the darkest places.

When you think of death row, think of the man I saw last week. Sitting on the other side of thick glass and bars, he told me a story.

Earlier this year, he was outside for rec time when a ladybug landed on his arm. He spent the next hour watching it crawl on his shirt, marveling at a tiny spot of beauty in a world of razor wire and armed guards. When it was time to go inside, another prisoner asked if he would take it inside and make it a pet. “No,” he said, “I don’t want to take anything into prison.” He let it fly away.

He is keenly aware of his mistakes and how much he’s taken from others. He felt he deserved worse when the judge pronounced his death sentence.

In the years since, the state has done its best to take everything from him. But he is still here. Day by day, he is figuring out how to live on death row – and how to nurture what he can.

Please help nurture justice and hope in 2020 by making a year-end contribution to the NC Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. Your donation will ensure that North Carolina never again executes a human being. Donate here.

—Kristin Collins, Dec. 17, 2019

 

 

NC case shines rare light on sexism in death penalty jury selection

CDPL Attorney Elizabeth Hambourger, expert on death penalty jury selection
CDPL Attorney Elizabeth Hambourger

CDPL attorney Elizabeth Hambourger has studied the ways that stereotypes affect who sits on death penalty juries in North Carolina criminal cases. In this guest post, she writes about a new case of jury bias making its way through the state’s courts.

By Elizabeth Hambourger

Until the middle of the 20th century, the law barred women from jury service. The myth was that women are weak and overly emotional, not rational enough to serve on juries.

A brief filed in late September in a North Carolina death penalty case shines a rare light on the persistence of sexist stereotypes in the legal system. Bryan Bell was sentenced to death in Sampson County in 2001. In 2010, he filed a claim under the Racial Justice Act, citing statistics that revealed a sweeping pattern of race discrimination in capital jury selection. The prosecutor in Bell’s case, Greg Butler, excluded several black citizens from Bell’s jury. Among them was an African American woman named Viola Morrow.

In response to the statistical pattern revealed by the RJA, Butler submitted a remarkable affidavit. To defend himself from the charges of race discrimination, Butler explained that he struck Morrow from the jury, not because she was black but because she was a woman. Butler said he rejected Morrow because he “was looking for a male juror and potential foreperson.” In another capital trial, Butler confessed that he excluded two women because he was “looking for strong male jurors.”

It‘s unconstitutional for a lawyer to use either race or gender as a factor in jury selection. In 1994, in J.E.B. v. Alabama, the Supreme Court rejected the very type of sexist reasoning Butler expressed in his affidavits: that women are not “strong” enough for jury service, that women are not capable of handling the leadership role of foreperson.  The Court said it would not tolerate jury strikes based on these “invidious, archaic, and overbroad” stereotypes.

In J.E.B., the justices also recognized that, if they condoned jury discrimination on the basis of gender, lawyers might use it as a way to disguise race discrimination in jury selection.  It certainly seems possible that’s exactly what Butler was trying to do when he crafted his affidavit. But whether based on race or gender, his actions were not only unacceptable but illegal.

The only way to stop such blatant discrimination is for courts to overturn convictions when it happens. Unfortunately, North Carolina appellate courts have a shameful record when it comes to policing jury discrimination: they have never overturned a single conviction on grounds that a juror was discriminated against on the basis of race or gender. But Bell’s is the unusual case in which a prosecutor openly admitted discriminating. If Butler’s affidavit doesn’t prove discrimination, what does? Nevertheless, the first court to consider the affidavit simply ignored it and upheld Bell’s conviction.

Now our state Supreme Court has an opportunity to make clear that women belong on North Carolina juries and that our state will not tolerate discrimination on the basis of misogynistic myths. Significantly, three of the seven Supreme Court justices hearing the case will be women, the most women ever to serve on our Court at once. One might well wonder whether prosecutor Greg Butler thinks these accomplished women are “strong” enough to be Supreme Court justices.  Of course, this time, they’ll be the ones judging him.

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