Another innocent person is exonerated after falsely confessing. Here’s how these coerced confessions happen

This week, James Blackmon was freed after 35 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. He was convicted in Wake County, based on his own false confession — which police dragged out of him after hours of coercive interrogation. Here, CDPL attorney Elizabeth Hambourger explains how false confessions happen.

Most of us think, “I would never confess to a crime I didn’t commit.” But the sad reality is, people do it all the time

More than a quarter of DNA exonerations involve a false confession. North Carolina’s longest serving death row exonerees, Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, were sentenced to death and spent a combined 60 years in prison because police interrogators manipulated them into taking responsibility for a terrible crime they had nothing to do with. And how many more Henrys and Leons are sitting in North Carolina’s prisons? 

Many American law enforcement officers are trained to conduct interrogations in ways that recklessly encourage false confessions. Using the popular Reid Technique, interrogators first examine a suspect’s body language for clues that supposedly indicate guilt. In truth, these non-verbal cues often indicate simple nervousness. But once interrogators decide a suspect is guilty, their only goal becomes to obtain an admissible confession. They might weaken a suspect’s defenses by depriving them of sleep and food. Or lie to a suspect, confusing them with invented but convincing evidence of their own guilt. Or they might minimize the seriousness of the suspect’s supposed actions, offering morally acceptable motives, such as accident or self-defense, which the suspect might endorse in hopes of ending the interrogation. 

You’ve probably seen all this on TV police dramas, but it’s ruining the lives of real-life innocent people. Today, a three-judge panel in Wake County exonerated James Blackmon, a man with severe mental illness who was manipulated into confessing to a 1979 murder at St. Augustine’s College. The flimsiest of evidence brought police to Blackmon’s bedside at Dorothea Dix, a mental hospital where Blackmon was confined. Four years after the murder of St. Aug’s student Helena Payton, long after the case had gone cold, police received a tip that an anonymous patient at Dix had confessed to a similar-sounding crime. Though there was no patient at Dix with the name the informant gave, police somehow ended up interrogating Blackmon.

Blackmon’s mental illness was immediately apparent. He compared himself to Dracula, claimed to have telepathic powers and the ability to cause natural disasters, and reported seeing UFOs. Officers noted that he wore a cape like Superman. In addition to suffering from schizoaffective disorder, a major psychotic illness, Blackmon’s IQ has tested as low as 69. Studies have found that those with mental and cognitive disabilities are more likely to give false confessions. 

Despite his vulnerabilities and the lack of any evidence linking him to the crime, police interrogated Blackmon over and over. In fact, according to false confession expert Allison Redlich, they used Blackmon’s mental illness to manipulate him. Eventually, Blackmon agreed with the officers that “the bad James Blackmon” must have killed Payton while the “good James Blackmon” was somewhere else. But, tellingly, Blackmon did not even know basic facts of the crime, including how Payton was killed. 

Blackmon’s “confession” was the only evidence against him. Detectives never found any physical evidence or eyewitnesses linking him to Helena Payton or the crime scene. In fact, there is physical evidence pointing to another suspect, and it now seems likely that Blackmon was in New York when Payton was killed. Yet, facing the possibility of a death sentence, Blackmon pled guilty and received a life sentence, even while still proclaiming his innocence. 

Despite compelling evidence that the confession was false, Wake District Attorney Lorrin Freeman fought Blackmon’s exoneration. She could have agreed to his release, as the prosecutor did in Henry and Leon’s case. Instead, she said the burden was on him to prove his innocence, an extremely high bar that stops many innocent people from ever being released from prison. Now that Blackmon has been ruled innocent by the three-judge panel, his case casts further doubt on the reliability of confessions, the techniques law enforcement officers use to obtain them, and prosecutors’ decisions to rely on them to secure convictions and induce pleas. Today will be a hollow victory for a man who has spent 35 unjustified years in prison — unless prosecutors and police use this as an occasion to reevaluate the widespread practices that lead to wrongful convictions.

Coming up: Racial Justice Act cases will put evidence of death penalty racism before the North Carolina Supreme Court

 

A big day is coming up, and we need your help! Beginning one week from today, North Carolina’s highest court will hear six cases under the North Carolina Racial Justice Act. These cases go to the heart of our fight to end the racist death penalty.

They include stunning evidence of racism in death penalty trials. The court must decide whether that evidence will get its day in court, or whether it will be thrown away. The decision comes down to whether the state will be allowed to execute people whose death sentences are tainted by racism.

Just look at some of the evidence these six death row prisoners have uncovered:

  • A prosecutor referred to a defendant as “a big black bull” during closing arguments.
  • During jury selection at a black man’s trial, two white jurors suggested that he should have been lynched, yet were allowed to remain in the jury pool.
  • At another trial, the sheriff’s department cordoned off the area behind the defense table with crime scene tape, prejudicing the jury and forcing the defendant’s black family to sit in the back of the courtroom.
  • Prosecutors wrote insulting notes about black jurors. A black juror with criminal history was a “thug” while a white juror who trafficked in drugs was “a fine guy.” A black juror was a “blk wino” while a white juror with a DUI conviction was a “country boy – ok.” A Black woman was acceptable because she was “from a respectable BLK family.”
  • A statistical study showed that prosecutors in the counties where the trials took place routinely struck qualified black jurors at far higher rates than white jurors, denying African American citizens the fundamental right to wield power in the jury box and defendants the right to a jury of their peers.

We need you to:

  1. Attend the hearings and invite your friends. The NC Supreme Court will hear arguments in five of the cases on August 26, beginning at 9:30 a.m. and the sixth case on August 27, at 9:30 a.m. Watch on WRAL if you’re unable to attend in person.
  2. Follow us on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter and share our posts.
  3. Spread the word. Your voice matters. Write a letter to the editor. Talk to your friends. Think local, think statewide, think about your regional newspaper, faith group, or book club. Share this site and share your thoughts on why capital punishment must come to an end.

Go here for a Racial Justice Act quick fact sheet to help you write your letter, craft your speech, or hand out at your event.

Go here for the full story of the Racial Justice Act and why it matters in our fight to end the death penalty.

 

 

 

Fact Sheet: The North Carolina Racial Justice Act

Aug. 15, 2019

  • The 2009 Racial Justice Act in North Carolina allowed death row prisoners who could prove that discrimination affected their trials and sentences to be resentenced to life in prison without parole. The law led to the discovery that African American citizens were being denied the fundamental democratic right to serve on juries in death penalty cases.
  • In six Racial Justice Act cases now before the N.C. Supreme Court, death row defendants submitted clear and compelling evidence that jury discrimination tainted their trials. The state is seeking to dismiss all six cases and slam the door on this evidence without it being heard in court.

  • In 2013, a newly Republican-led legislature repealed the Racial Justice Act. Nevertheless, the evidence the Racial Justice Act revealed must be addressed. North Carolina constitutional law dating back to the Civil War ensures defendants the right to have legally filed claims heard in court, regardless of whether the law is later repealed.

  • Four of the defendants were the only prisoners to receive hearings under the Racial Justice Act. All prevailed and received sentences of life without parole, but they were returned to death row after the legislature repealed the Racial Justice Act in 2013. The other two had their cases dismissed without ever being heard. The State Supreme Court must now decide whether the constitution requires that the six defendants facing execution get a fair hearing on their evidence of racial bias.

  • Denying evidence of racism its day in court is unfair and unconstitutional.  Dismissing these claims would be a stain on North Carolina’s record that would erode public trust in its criminal justice system.

  • These cases involve key civil rights: the right of citizens to serve on a jury and be selected in a manner free of discrimination, and the right of capital defendants to a fair trial, free of discrimination. It is illegal to strike any juror based on race, and these cases test North Carolina’s resolve to enforce this vital civil rights protection.

  • The evidence shows that, in the six cases, N.C. prosecutors engaged in racially discriminatory conduct. For example, in one case, the prosecutor made derogatory references to African Americans as “blk wino” and “thug,” while accepting white jurors with criminal backgrounds as “fine” or “ok.”

  • The evidence also shows that racial bias in North Carolina’s death penalty is pervasive. A statistical study found that, in the defendants’ counties, prosecutors excluded black jurors at more than twice the rate of white jurors. Documents showed that prosecutors were specifically trained in how to disguise racially motivated strikes of black jurors.

Go here to learn how to take action against North Carolina’s racist death penalty.

The whitening of the jury: How discrimination thrives in NC courtrooms

Black people have a constitutional right to serve on juries, just like white people. That should go without saying. But the reality is that prosecutors use all kinds of tricks and excuses to stop black citizens from sitting on juries. In this 5-minute audio documentary created by students at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, CDPL attorney Johanna Jennings explains how this form of racial discrimination persists in the courtroom. The students did a fabulous job and it’s worth a listen.

This documentary is just in time. Later this month, the NC Supreme Court will hear arguments from six death row prisoners who have uncovered evidence that people of color were illegally struck from their juries. Learn more here about the Racial Justice Act and how you can get involved.

 

One note: The documentary’s creators, Shaakira Raheem and Khalid Bashr, imagined some fictional questions that prosecutors might ask of black jurors like, “Do you have a birth certificate?” While these are not the actual questions prosecutors have asked black jurors in North Carolina courtrooms, some of the questions they actually have asked are equally outrageous and demeaning. For example:

  • In a Cumberland County courtroom, the prosecutor asked a black man if he had trouble reading and whether he went “straight through” school. No white jurors were asked similar questions.
  • Another Cumberland prosecutor asked a black man if he listened to Bob Marley or was familiar with the former emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie — implying that he might sympathize with black defendants who practiced Rastafarianism. Again, no white jurors were asked similar questions.
  • In Rowan County, a prosecutor asked a black woman if she would face criticism from her black friends if she voted to convict a black person of a crime.
  • In Transylvania County, a black juror was asked if her child’s father was paying child support.

 

Johanna
Johanna Jennings, right

Creating monsters out of human beings

posted in: Latest News | 0
Erica Washington, an attorney at CDPL

The failures of our broken criminal legal system don’t just affect the people we incarcerate and condemn to death. The injustice of our system ripples out into the world, affecting countless lives. This weekend, advocates and loved ones of incarcerated people shared their stories at the Carolina Justice Policy Center‘s Poetic Justice event. Then, spoken word artists created responsive poems. Here, please read the story shared by attorney Erica Washington, who represents people on death row at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation.

See two other death penalty attorneys tell their stories at last year’s event, along with the responsive poems: Elizabeth Hambourger and Ken Rose

Creating Locusts

By Erica Washington

The other day I came across an old episode of the popular NPR podcast, Invisibilia. The episode, which was titled “True You,” challenged the popular notion that each of us has one authentic and consistent self. Often thought of as one’s endemic personality. Curiously though, the hosts of the episode began with a story about locusts.

So Locusts have been synonymous with devastation throughout history. Swarms have devastated crops, contributed to countless disease outbreaks, and quite literally dictated patterns of human migration throughout time.

Their infamy is well known. They’ve played prominent roles in the Iliad, the Bible, the Quran. The Ancient Egyptians carved locust-like shapes into their tombs, while the Chinese, in ninth century BC, appointed a regiment – an entire police force- of anti-locust officers.

Notwithstanding this long and torturous history, farmers and scientists alike struggled to understand the seemingly sudden appearance of these villainous insects. They searched in vain for initial breeding locations and yearned for clues in the soil. Finding no answers, locusts quickly acquired an otherworldly reputation. In the Bible, for example, their sudden appearance is attributed to Pharaoh’s refusal to free the Israelites, while Assyrians wore these elaborate and detailed locust shaped charms believing in their power to ward off plagues.

In fact, it was not until 1921 that scientists finally solved this origin mystery. It turns out that the answer was hopping in front of them the entire time. Scientists realized that locusts and grasshoppers are not two distinct species as previously thought. When a period of drought is followed by rapid vegetation growth, grasshoppers pack together into tight crowds, resulting in the rubbing of their hind legs and the release of serotonin in their brains. When all of these factors coalesce, it causes significant changes in their behavior: they breed like crazy, form swarms, and strip crops.

Okay – I’m sure many of you are wondering what the origin story of locusts has to do with the criminal legal system, but hopefully by the end of my story you’ll see that, in fact, it has everything to do this system. I represent individuals on death row. Essentially, what I do is work to help people see the grasshopper, when inventing a locust feels so much easier. I do this work because I know the danger that results when we misunderstand why we are who we are.

Byron Waring was arrested and sentenced to death for the murder of Lauren Redman. Investigators said Redman was raped by Byron’s co-defendant and stabbed more than 20 times.  Byron, 19-years-old at the time, is on death row for her murder.

The blindness that contributed to centuries of agricultural devastation operates to a similar degree in my work representing men and women accused of violent crimes. For our ancestors to see the grasshopper and locust as one in the same, they had to accept the general premise that grasshoppers, under certain circumstances, could behave like locusts. Instead, unable to make this mental bridge, they invented a new fictional species. They invented the locust.

And this doesn’t just operate on death row, right. We’re constantly inventing fictional species – the welfare queen, the super predator. This allows us to fashion narratives around an us and a them – which always feels easier. In law school, I came across Section 738 of the Louisiana Revised Statutes, which makes it illegal for a Louisiana state inmate to live at a standard above the state poverty level. Again, it’s ILLEGAL for a Louisiana state inmate to live at a standard ABOVE the state poverty level. According to the Louisiana Legislature, this is because [c]itizens should not be worse off economically and living in conditions that are below those granted to inmates whose living standards are being paid for and subsidized by the hard-working and law-abiding people of the state of Louisiana.

This reasoning, espoused by the Louisiana’s statute but pervasive throughout a US conception of justice, hinges upon a strict distinction between “inmates” and “hard working, law-abiding people.” The law condemns one category to live at the line of poverty because of their deservedness in relation to the other. There is no hint of fluidity existing between these two categories, or the possibility of existing within both simultaneously. You’re either a “hard-working and law-abiding” citizen of Louisiana, or you are a criminal. You’re either a grasshopper, or you are a locust.

As in the case of Section 738, this flawed dichotomy leads us to focus all of our attention on punishing the mosimmediate agent of the harm, as opposed to the origin. Thus, we make it illegal to spend more on those most in need than that which will cover basic essentials. We disenfranchise felons and support employment and housing discrimination, telling ourselves that that’s what they deserve. We blind ourselves to our shared humanity, call them criminals, and then treat them like that is all they’ve been, all they’ll ever be, and all their fault.

Death row is the pinnacle of this flawed dichotomy. My clients are called monsters, demons, and beasts. Similar to the infamy locusts enjoyed for millennia, we attribute their behavior to inexplicable moral failings, not environmental ones. Not the physical, mental, and emotional abuse that characterized so many of their lives. Like locusts, we immortalize their crimes through movies, Netflix series, and folklore. We invoke the devil to make sense of their acts and thus find it appropriate to resort to barbaric executions to rid us of them. These are the narratives we create. Have we learned nothing from the locust?

Byron was traumatized. It was multidimensional and pervasive. His trauma was compounded by a childhood that lacked any consistent, predictable, and attuned parenting. But Byron never had the opportunity to make meaning out of his trauma. And his trauma was not unique. We know that studies estimate between 75 and 92% of those entering the juvenile justice system have experienced trauma.

What I’ve learned about trauma is that an essential part of healing is the development of a shared narrative about what happened, and if possible, why it happened. Narratives are the stories we tell to make sense of ourselves, our lives and the situations we encounter and confront. These narratives are the foundations upon which meaningful and useful remedies can be built. They’re how we avoid useless remedies such as a fleet of anti-locust officers. But Byron is on death row. How does he, in and out of a cage since age 14, soon to spend a majority of his life at central prison, how does he construct a narrative about what happened which moves beyond those that the confines of the row produce? How do I, his attorney, help him create a richer, more complete, and expansive narrative which moves beyond those that the confines of the law produce.

The narratives we create do damage. As long as we continue to tell stories that equate human beings to swarming monsters driven to destruction by some inexplicable personal moral failing, the cycle of harm will continue. As long as our narratives are fashioned around an us and a them, they will not provide the foundation for meaningful and useful remedies. We can do little to prevent harm if we fail to recognize its origin. How different history may have been if locusts were never invented, if farmers could point to grasshoppers in volatile environments, as opposed to charms around people’s necks, to explain the existence of the harm. Yet history repeats itself. We criminalize poverty instead of addressing it. We spend scraps on rehabilitation and sit by as 75 percent of prisoners are rearrested within five years of release. If we saw these men and women as the grasshoppers they are, and not the locusts we’ve created, maybe we’d find that we have more power to address the societal and environmental causes of the harm than otherwise believed. Maybe a story in which we’re implicated would cause us to care.

In our constant search for understanding, let us not blind ourselves to answers hopping right beneath our noses. Yes, these narratives will be complex, and origins of harm will not all be obvious or even able to be known, but killing what we don’t understand brings us no closer to comprehension. Byron did harm. Real, significant, heartbreaking harm. But he deserves the truth and fullness of his humanity, as did Lauren. Because we know that there is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.” We all must tell fuller, more complete, more challenging narratives. It is critical. We must make clear that when you kill a locust you always kill a grasshopper. You cannot execute one and keep the other.

 

Charles Finch is 10th innocent man freed after being sentenced to death in North Carolina

Charles Finch exoneration
Charles Ray Finch is wheeled out of prison after more than four decades of wrongful incarceration

Charles Ray Finch was released from prison last week, 43 years after he was sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit. His family cheered and thanked God as he emerged from the prison gates, and at Finch’s request, they all went for barbecue.

Exonerations always have a celebratory feel of justice finally being served. But don’t mistake Finch’s release for justice, or for anything other than a tragedy.

Finch spent his life in prison being degraded and brutalized, because that’s what the American prison system is designed to do. His daughter, who was 2 when he went to prison, grew up without him. Finch struggled with anger and depression, and is now 81 years old and in poor health. He was pushed out of prison in a wheelchair.

He was convicted in 1976 for the robbery and killing of a convenience store clerk. Investigators conducted an improper suspect lineup and then lied about it. They pressured witnesses to implicate Finch. Yet, no one has been or likely will be punished for their role in this miscarriage of justice.

The Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic spent nearly 19 years working for Finch’s release. Something is wrong when it takes that long to free a single innocent person.

Ten people have now been exonerated after receiving death sentences in North Carolina. All of them were poor, and most of them were black. More innocent people remain in prison, waiting year after year for the system to “work.”

This is the system that North Carolina lawmakers say you should trust to decide life and death, and to carry out executions. It’s a system that’s profoundly broken and still threatens the lives of 142 people on death row.

Let’s not ever mistake an exoneration for something to celebrate.

 

Posted: May 28, 2019

Henry McCollum death row exoneration
Henry McCollum was freed in 2014 after serving 30 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. His face at the moment a judge granted his freedom says it all.

After hate-filled murders in N.C., choosing a legacy of love and light over the darkness of the death penalty

April 12, 2019

Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha
Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Those words were first spoken by Martin Luther King Jr., and many have repeated them. But it takes integrity to live by them, especially when hate has touched you in the most profound way.

Yet, that’s exactly what the families of Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha have done again and again since February 2015, when these three promising Muslim students were senselessly murdered by an angry white neighbor. The crime not only ripped a hole in their families and deprived the world of three wonderful people, it terrorized the entire Muslim community. To make it worse, since the murders, their loved ones have been targeted with hateful slurs.

Their response has been to ensure that the legacy of their beautiful children will be one of love, not hate. They opened a community center for young Muslim people in a house that Barakat once owned. They started an annual interfaith food drive in the victims’ honor. Just this week, they traveled to Washington D.C. to share their story at a Congressional hearing on hate crimes.

And then Thursday, when the Durham district attorney announced that she would not seek the death penalty against their killer, the victims’ brother, Farris Barakat, stood before a crowd of reporters and expressed the family’s support for the decision. He cited those words from Dr. King and acknowledged that nothing that happens in a courtroom can ever bring true “closure” for their loss.

The myth of the death penalty is that it has a magical power to bring closure to grieving families. But the truth is that it only stokes more hate and anger. It only creates more grieving families. It only brings more darkness into our world.

D.A. Satana Deberry explained that removing the death penalty from the picture would allow the trial – already overdue – to proceed without delay. Deberry made the right decision in this difficult case, one that should be an example for other prosecutors dealing with painful crimes. The death penalty delays and extends trials and appeals, making them more painful for all involved. And, for all that, only a tiny fraction of cases ever result in execution.

Deberry also said that bringing the case to trial quickly will allow the family to begin to heal. It’s clear they’ve already begun that difficult work. Their actions this week were yet another step toward ensuring that the memories of their loved ones will be beacons of love and hope, rather than catalysts for hatred and death.

A death penalty as random as a lightning strike

April 8, 2019

It’s been nearly 50 years since the U.S. Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional nationwide, saying there was “no meaningful basis for distinguishing the few cases in which [the death penalty] is imposed from the many cases in which it is not.” States, including North Carolina, have spent the years since writing laws that — theoretically — allow us to cleanly sort those who deserve the death penalty from those who don’t.

All these years later, it’s clear we have failed.

Just look at the two most recent death penalty verdicts in North Carolina, in the cases of Seaga Gillard and James Bradley. Both involve tragic murders that caused unimaginable pain to the families of the victims.

The first was a double homicide by a person who had previously committed kidnappings, rapes, and robberies. The second was a single killing by a person who had committed two previous homicides, one of them a child. Both were black men who had killed white women.

Both were tried in urban centers, Raleigh and Wilmington. The same expert, a former prison warden, testified in both cases that the defendants could be safely housed in prison and would suffer a life of harsh deprivation there.

If you gave a detailed summary of these cases to a random sampling of people and asked which defendant should live and which should die, there would be no rational way to decide between them. Yet, the Raleigh jury sentenced to Gillard to death in March, and the Wilmington jury deadlocked last week, leaving Bradley with a sentence of life without parole.

This disparity isn’t just irrational and indefensible, it’s unconstitutional. The Supreme Court has already established that a death penalty that’s as random as a lightning strike is not justice, it is cruelty.

In California, the moral case for ending the death penalty

March 14, 2019

In today’s world, it’s easy to think politicians on both sides of the aisle care only about their own power and reelection chances. But every once in a while, we see an act of moral leadership that renews our faith in government. This week, it happened in California.

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that he would dismantle the death chamber and grant the state’s nearly 750 death row inmates a reprieve. They will remain incarcerated but will no longer live under the threat of execution. It was a stunning move in a state with the nation’s largest death row.

Newsom ends California death penalty

What’s more, Newsom didn’t just couch his decision in the safe terms of how much money it would save the state —billions — or how hopelessly backlogged the state’s death penalty machine was. Since 1976, California has sentenced hundreds of people to death yet carried out 13 executions. He also made a strong moral argument against the death penalty.

Newsom noted proven racial disparities in the criminal justice system, the way the death penalty preys on poor people, and the national epidemic of wrongful convictions. And then he described a conversation with Bryan Stevenson. “He said it’s not a question, the death penalty, of whether people deserve to die for their heinous acts. The question really is, do we have the right to kill? That’s a deep and existential question. I know people think it’s an eye for an eye, but if you rape, we don’t rape. And I think, if someone kills, we don’t kill. We’re better than that.”

Newsom also laid out the unthinkable scenario that might have ensued without his action. “What we’re being asked to do in California is to consider executing more people than any state in modern American history,” he said. “To line people up to be executed — premeditated, state sponsored executions — one a week for over 14 years. That’s a choice we can make, or we can make, I think, a more enlightened choice, to advance justice in a different way.”

Watch Newsom’s full speech here.

North Carolina faces a very similar situation. Like California, we have not executed anyone since 2006. We have one of the country’s largest death rows, made up mostly of people tried decades ago. Nine innocent people have been exonerated after being sentenced to die, and more claims of innocence are under investigation.

Our state has spent millions on the death penalty and executed just a few dozen people, offering the ultimate punishment to only a tiny handful of victims’ families. And if North Carolina were to resume executions, at the rate of one a week, it would take us nearly three years to kill all the people on death row — a macabre spectacle.

North Carolina, too, should make the enlightened choice to put an official end to the death penalty. There are better ways to do justice and bring comfort to the families of victims. And there are better ways to show that killing is wrong.

Just like the death penalty, sentencing kids to die in prison is cruel and unusual

Feb. 25, 2019

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional to sentence children to death. (Better late than never!) The decision cited research showing that human brains continue to grow and aren’t fully formed until people are in their early 20s, and that our character and ability to make reasoned decisions is still developing.

Given that, it’s unbelievable that North Carolina, and 28 other states, continue to impose a punishment almost as harsh on kids — life with no possibility of parole. Think about that: Still today, a 13-year-old can be declared “irredeemable” and sent to prison with no chance of ever getting out.

Since the sentence went on the books in 1994, 94 kids 13 to 17 have been sentenced to life without parole in North Carolina — and 86 of them were children of color. Apparently, this is a punishment we reserve almost exclusively for non-white kids. Many of them were not even the main culprit in the crime for which they were convicted. And as with the people on N.C.’s death row, the vast majority of them were sentenced in the 1990s, when we had very different ideas about justice.

According to a new report from Duke Law School, which delves into how juvenile life without parole is used in North Carolina, the cases are as riddled with unfairness and flimsy evidence as our death row cases. Consider this example:

In 1995, at age 16, Derrick McRae was accused of murder in Richmond County. McRae is black. There was no physical evidence linking him to the crime and eyewitness accounts were mixed. At his first trial, the jury hung with eight jurors arguing for acquittal. Before his second trial, the prosecutor offered him a deal: If he pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter, he would be out of prison in 13 months. McRae refused, claiming innocence.

At his second trial in 1998, the evidence against him came largely from a co-defendant and a jailhouse informant. In his closing argument, the prosecutor commented on McRae’s “uncaring, unfeeling” demeanor in court. The jury didn’t know that McRae was schizophrenic and, before the trial, had been denied his medication. They convicted him of first-degree murder, which led to an automatic sentence of life without parole.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court stepped in again. In 2012, the court ruled that children could not receive automatic life without parole sentences. Thus, children serving life without parole in N.C. were entitled to new hearings to determine whether they were permanently irredeemable or should receive new sentences with the possibility of parole.

In 2017, McCrae had his hearing and is now eligible for parole in 2021.

But seven years after the Supreme Court ruling, 46 kids — almost half — still haven’t had their hearings. And life without parole remains a possible sentence for kids as young as 13.

Just like the death penalty, sentencing kids to die in prison is barbaric and excessive. As Bryan Stevenson says so eloquently:

Life without parole is supposed to be a judgment that says this person is beyond hope, beyond redemption, beyond rehabilitation, has been given opportunities to change and hasn’t changed… You can never say that about a child.

Read an op-ed by one of the study’s authors, Duke Law Professor Brandon Garrett.

New day in North Carolina: Poll shows majority of voters no longer support the death penalty

Feb. 11, 2019

For generations, North Carolina politicians of both parties have had one thing in common: Almost all of them staunchly supported the death penalty. That’s largely because they believed their voters supported it.

They’ve continued to operate on that belief, even without much data to back it up. But late last month, Public Policy Polling conducted a statewide poll to answer the question: What do North Carolinians think about the death penalty today?

The results should make state politicians question their death penalty orthodoxy. After more than a decade without executions and a wave of exonerations of innocent people on death row, voters no longer trust the system to decide who should live and die.

Some of the striking results of the survey of 501 voters across the state, 47 percent of whom voted for Trump and 45 percent of whom voted for Clinton:

70 percent say it’s likely that an innocent person has been executed in North Carolina. This belief alone is enough reason to end the death penalty!

57 percent say it’s likely that racial bias influences who is sentenced to death. Pervasive racism is another good reason to end it!

When given a choice between the death penalty and a maximum sentence of life without parole, more than 50 percent of voters favor life without parole, while only 44 percent lean toward keeping the death penalty.

When offered a larger range of alternatives, including requirements that offenders work and pay restitution to victims’ families, only 25 percent favored the death penalty.

58 percent prefer to eliminate the death penalty if the millions of dollars spent on it each year were redirected to investigating and prosecuting unsolved rapes and murders.

A clear majority would support actions by the governor or by their local district attorneys to stop executions and death penalty trials.

No wonder N.C. juries have sentenced only a single person to death since 2014. Our citizens clearly see how unjust and wasteful the death penalty is. It’s time for our leaders to listen to their constituents.

For a more detailed summary of the poll results, go to CDPL’s website

Why we’re winning the fight against the death penalty in North Carolina

NC Supreme Court Building with American and State Flag, seen through the trees
North Carolina Supreme Court

 

December 17, 2018 

Sometimes, the fight to end the death penalty can feel like a long, slow slog. But we’ve got good news. We are winning!

In 2018, for the second year in a row, juries didn’t hand down any new death sentences. Two years in a row of no new death sentences? That’s never happened before. We shouldn’t underestimate how significant that is in a state that, in the 1990s, sent dozens of people to death row every year.

For the twelfth year in a row, no executions were carried out in 2018.

Even our state’s district attorneys have begun to flag in their enthusiasm for death sentences. Only three counties (out of 100!) held death penalty trials this year. In Buncombe County, District Attorney Todd Williams is going a step further. He has begun reevaluating decades-old death sentences — and when he finds that the defendant got an unfair trial, he agrees to stop seeking execution and allow the person to serve life without parole instead.

In 2019, we have more reform-minded DAs who will take office in Durham and Charlotte. We’re hoping they will be part of a national trend away from the death penalty, mass incarceration, and racially-disparate punishments. [America’s Leading Reform-Minded District Attorney Has Taken His Most Radical Step Yet]

As this year comes to a close, 140 people remain on death row in North Carolina. Their lives depend on us continuing to fight — and continuing to win.

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