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

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

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

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.

Resentenced to Life: Why justice matters, even for my guilty clients

A November 2018 case in Buncombe County perfectly illustrated the problems with N.C.’s decades-old death sentences. By today’s laws and standards of justice, most of the people on death row simply shouldn’t be there. Buncombe DA Todd Williams recognized that when he agreed that James Morgan, who has been on death row since 1999, never got the fair trial to which the Constitution entitles him and likely wouldn’t be sentenced to death if he were retried today. Williams remedied the injustice by agreeing that Morgan should be resentenced to life in prison without parole. Here, one of Morgan’s defense attorneys reflects on what this action means for her client and for justice.

 

Jimmy Morgan at his court hearing last week.

 

By Elizabeth Hambourger

November 14, 2018

On Friday, Jimmy Morgan was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole. And for this he was grateful. The prospect of a lifetime behind bars might not sound like anything to be thankful for, but Jimmy has spent the past 19 years on North Carolina’s death row.

In the years I’ve represented Jimmy, he has often expressed his regret for the crime that resulted in his death sentence. Jimmy was using crack one night in Asheville with Patrina King. The two got into an argument over money, and Jimmy lost his temper and killed Patrina, stabbing her multiple times with a broken beer bottle. With Jimmy’s acceptance of responsibility for this terrible act came knowledge that he would never again live in the free world.

Legally, there was a strong argument that even though Jimmy was guilty, he should never have been sentenced to death. The jury that sentenced him didn’t know that this impulsive crime was in part the product of several traumatic brain injuries, which began in childhood. Jimmy fell out of a moving car at the age of nine. Following the accident, family members noticed a distinct change in his behavior and personality. Later in life, he was hit in the head with a baseball bat and, in a separate incident, a wall-mounted television fell on him from above.

The lawyers who represented Jimmy at trial were given neither the time nor the resources to investigate the impact of Jimmy’s injuries. When a neuropsychologist finally tested Jimmy, years after he’d been sentenced to death, the results showed that he ranks in the bottom 1st or 2nd percentile in several critical areas of brain functioning. The doctor concluded that Jimmy’s brain damage left him unable to make reasoned decisions or control his impulses on the night he killed Patrina King.

Elizabeth Hambourger

It’s apparent when you meet Jimmy that his brain damage has lasted a lifetime. Although he is now 63 years old, Jimmy’s defining feature is his childlike exuberance, expressed with large physical movements and animated facial expressions. In the middle of a conversation, he’ll suddenly break into a tune from The Music Man.

He often speaks and writes in spontaneous rhyme. One of the first times I met Jimmy, he made up an on-the-spot rap about my wristwatch. He plays an energetic air guitar, composes and performs his own hymns for death row worship services, keeps a running tally of the thousands of three-point shots he’s made on the prison basketball court, and likes to entertain people by flipping his cap from his foot to the top of his head.

Jimmy lacks a “filter,” for good and for bad. The dual faces of this impulsiveness are a tragic illustration of the truism that our greatest strengths are often our greatest weaknesses.

Over the many years Jimmy’s case lingered in the courts, other lawyers and I argued that the jury should have been told about Jimmy’s brain damage, and if they’d known, they wouldn’t have given him a death sentence. But multiple courts rejected our argument.

Then last year, the U.S. Supreme Court decided a new case that reaffirmed a criminal defendant’s right to a neuropsychological evaluation. When my co-counsel Mark Kleinschmidt and I brought that case to the attention of Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams, he agreed that it entitled Jimmy to a new sentencing hearing. What’s more, Williams realized that if Jimmy were retried now, he would never receive a death sentence. No Buncombe jury has sentenced anyone to death since 2000.

Williams agreed that the proper sentence for Jimmy is life without possibility of parole. This means Jimmy will never get out of prison, but the appeals in his case will finally come to an end. He will move into general population, where he might be able to work a prison job and enjoy a few small privileges – like contact visits that will allow him to finally hold his granddaughter.

At the resentencing hearing Friday, Patrina King’s family spoke to Jimmy and the court. They spoke eloquently of their continuing anger, and of their attempts to forgive even in the face of so much pain.

Jimmy asked me to read his statement of apology:

Thank you for this opportunity to apologize to the King Family. I am very sorry for my actions that took the life of Patrina. I know many people loved her. Every day, I think about it. I do a lot of praying. I understand that I will be spending the rest of my life in prison. I can see the degree of hurt I have caused the King Family and my own family.  I love my family and I appreciate their love and support. I’m sorry.

And then, still shackled, he was led out of the Asheville courtroom, not by any means a free man, but free of the death sentence that had been hanging over his head for nearly twenty years.

NC, let’s take a hint from Washington: It’s time to end the racist death penalty

October 16, 2018

Last week, Washington became the 20th state to end the death penalty after its Supreme Court ruled that capital punishment is arbitrary and racially biased. If those are reasons to outlaw the death penalty, then it is surely time for the North Carolina death penalty to go.

How much more proof can you ask for that the death penalty is racist and arbitrary in our state?

More than 63 percent of North Carolina’s death 141 row prisoners are people of color, even though they make up less than 30 percent of the state population. More than two dozen of the people on death row were sentenced to die by all-white juries.

A comprehensive statistical study found that defendants who kill white victims are more likely to get the death penalty, and that across the state, African American citizens are systematically, and illegally, excluded from capital juries.

If that’s not enough, let’s talk about arbitrariness.

A new report from the Center for Death Penalty Litigation shows that most of the people on N.C. death row are only there because they had the bad luck to be tried under outdated laws, before there were basic legal protections to ensure fairness at their trials. Had they been tried under modern laws, most wouldn’t be on death row today.

Watch the story of Nathan Bowie, who because there was no indigent defense agency at the time of his trial, ended up with an alcoholic lawyer who came to court drunk.

Today, after the enactment of many reforms, only a handful of people each year face capital trials. Yet, the selection of that handful remains arbitrary. It has more to do with the practices of the local DA, the county where the crime occurred, and the defendant’s willingness to accept a plea bargain than it does with the severity of the crime.

Across the country, people have become unwilling to ignore the obviousness unfairness that infects the death penalty. Last week, Washington admitted the truth about its death penalty. It’s time for North Carolina to do the same.

Why most of N.C.’s death row inmates never should have gotten the death penalty

October 9, 2018

After 12 years without an execution, many people believe the North Carolina death penalty is dead. That might be true — if it weren’t for the more than 140 people still on death row.

Our state continues to spend millions every year fighting to execute those men and women, even though the vast majority of them were sentenced decades ago under outdated laws and standards of justice. If they had been tried in modern times, most would never have received the death penalty.

Watch the story of one of N.C.’s longest serving death row inmates:

This week, a new report from the Center for Death Penalty Litigation exposes just how unfair many of those sentences are by today’s standards. About three-quarters of N.C.’s death row inmates were tried in the 1990s, before a slate of reforms were enacted to protect defendants’ basic rights and prevent wrongful convictions.

CDPL’s report, Unequal Justice: How Obsolete Laws and Unfair Trials Created North Carolina’s Outsized Death Row, finds that out of 142 death row prisoners in North Carolina:

92% (131) were tried before a 2008 package of reforms intended to prevent false confessions and mistaken eyewitness identifications, which have been leading causes of wrongful convictions across the country. The new laws require interrogations and confessions to be recorded in homicide cases and set strict guidelines for eyewitness line-up procedures.

84% (119) were tried before a law granting defendants the right to see all the evidence in the prosecutor’s file — including information that might help reduce their sentence or prove their innocence.

73% (104) were sentenced before laws barring the execution of people with intellectual disabilities. Despite a promise of relief for these less culpable defendants, disabled prisoners remain on death row.

 73% (103) were sentenced before the creation of a statewide indigent defense agency that drastically improved the quality of representation for poor people facing the death penalty, and a law ending an unprecedented requirement that prosecutors pursue the death penalty in every aggravated first-degree murder. Before these changes, prosecutors did not have the ability to seek life sentences in these cases and poor people often received a sub-standard defense.

CDPL’s engaging and easy-to-read report is full of facts and true stories from death row that will change how you think about the death penalty. Read it here.

Remaining human in the face of an inhumane death penalty system

October 3, 2018

It’s hard to describe what it feels like to be a capital defense attorney. To be responsible for saving the lives of people who’ve committed terrible crimes, and sometimes, to be forced to watch them die. In this video, Elizabeth Hambourger, a staff attorney at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, explains in moving and personal terms what it’s like to do this most difficult of jobs.

She performed this piece at Poetic Justice, an event organized by the Carolina Justice Policy Center, in which poets, advocates, attorneys, and others told stories of the criminal justice system. Take a few minutes to watch, and step into someone else’s world.

Some of Elizabeth’s words:

I was a 22 year old summer intern when I was asked to work on the case of a man named Timmy. He was scheduled to be executed at the end of that summer … And I went to see Timmy’s family. He had a young son. And I remember sitting in that family’s home and the boy brought out his calendar, like the kind you hang on the wall. And in the square of the date on the calendar that was the execution date, he had written “Dad dies.”

The more I know about the death penalty, the more problems I see with it. But what seems most pressing to me now is that the death penalty increases pain. It’s like a machine that takes this terribly painful human event, and it takes that pain and replicates it and sends it spewing out in all directions.

By my count, I have gotten to know about 20 people living their lives on death row. Under sentence of death, but living their lives. Some have a hard time coping. But there are some who I actually count as role models for me in how to grow and change and deal with the difficult parts of life.

I have one client who writes beautiful essays that he shares with the world by having his friend post for him online. I have another client who helps administer a pen pal program for his fellow inmates.  I have another client who when I met him he wanted to die. Slowly, through artwork and by building relationships with other inmates, pen pals, and his legal team, he has gained the will to live. He had no contact with his mother when I met him. And then one day around Christmas time he heard a sappy song on the radio that made him want to write to his mom, and through that small act of humility he has rebuilt their relationship into something they never had before he went to prison. One client remarked to me that God works in mysterious ways: he had to be sentenced to death in order to learn that there were people in the world who would care about him and fight for him.

See more videos from Poetic Justice here.

Jurors sent an innocent man to death row. Now they ask: “Where did we go wrong?”

Originally published in the News & Observer

Henry McCollum, moments after his exoneration. ©Jenny Warburg

By Kristin Collins

September 6, 2018

One elderly woman sat with us in her living room, wearing a pink nightgown. “I should have followed my conscience,” she said, her hands shaking. “I hope he can forgive me.” It’s unclear if she’s seeking forgiveness from the innocent man she sent to death row, or God himself.

She believed the Bible’s instruction: “Thou shalt not kill.” Yet, as a juror decades earlier, she voted for a death sentence for Henry McCollum, an intellectually disabled teenager who was accused of raping and murdering an 11-year-old girl in Robeson County.

The juror put the trial out of her mind until, four years ago this week, McCollum was exonerated. New DNA testing proved another man guilty, and McCollum blameless.  After 30 years on death row, McCollum was free.

Kristin Collins

At the time, I was relatively new to my job at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, whose lawyers represented McCollum. His story showed me just how high the stakes are in this world. North Carolina came close to executing an innocent man.

I am still learning from his case. This spring and summer, a co-worker and I criss-crossed Robeson and Cumberland counties, finding jurors who unwittingly sentenced an innocent man to death. The jurors served at McCollum’s original trial in 1983, and his retrial in 1991, held in Fayetteville. Both juries voted unanimously for death.

We hoped they could shed light on how our system got it so terribly wrong. But as I knocked on strangers’ doors, I worried they would be defensive or angry. Instead, they welcomed us into their homes.

Some seemed relieved to finally talk through the trauma of the trial, though none would let us use their names. Many were ashamed of their role, afraid of what their neighbors would think. Some feared God’s wrath, and wondered if they would go to hell for McCollum’s wrongful conviction. Some shed tears at the mention of his name and said the experience was too painful to revisit. They remembered McCollum at the defense table, silent and unresponsive, like a confused and broken child.

All were denied the information they needed to reach a fair verdict. They were shown gruesome crime photos and McCollum’s confession, written by the police. Even McCollum’s defense attorneys admitted his guilt, believing the jury would spare him if he accepted responsibility.

No one told the jury that another, almost identical crime was committed just a month after the girl’s murder — and that the culprit was not McCollum, but a man who lived by the field where her body was found. The jury didn’t know fingerprints were found at the scene, and that none of them were McCollum’s. They didn’t know the case against McCollum started with a rumor from a teenage girl, who later admitted she made it up.

One juror said his biggest regret is that he trusted prosecutors to tell the truth. If McCollum was on trial, he believed, he’d probably done it.

Like everyone we talked to, his most vivid memories were the photos. At the time, he had a daughter the same age as the victim. When the verdict was announced in the courtroom, he looked at her father. The juror had done what the prosecutor said was right, and he hoped it would ease another father’s pain.

“I’ve been trying to figure out, where did we go wrong?” he said. “I feel like we got duped by the system.”

I was in the courtroom for McCollum’s exoneration four years ago. I will never forget the sight of him standing in a cage – the court probably calls it a holding cell – during a break. He stared silently at the floor, powerless against a system that had chained and caged him for his entire adult life.

Now, there is another image that stays with me. A woman sitting in the dim light of her living room, hardly strong enough to rise from her chair, wondering what those 30 years were like for Henry McCollum. Wondering whether God has heard her pleas for forgiveness.

An execution’s aftermath: “I watched him die 15 years ago, and I still talk to him sometimes”

Gretchen Engel holding a painting by her executed client, Quentin Jones.

By Gretchen M. Engel

August 22, 2018

I watched him die 15 years ago, and I still talk to him sometimes. I talked to him a lot in the weeks after he was killed and thought maybe I was going a little crazy. And then I thought, it’s probably normal to go a little crazy when you see somebody killed 10 feet in front of you, somebody you knew really well and cared about and tried so hard to save.

I’m talking about my client, Quentin Jones, who was executed at 2 a.m. on August 22, 2003. Quentin was 18, homeless, and addicted to drugs in 1987, when he robbed a convenience store with an Uzi 9mm pistol. The store camera caught most of the crime on tape. You can’t see Quentin shooting Edward Peebles, who had stopped in for coffee after playing music with his friends, but you can hear it. Like Quentin, Peebles had a young daughter. During Quentin’s capital sentencing hearing, the two toddlers played together in the back of the courtroom.

At the execution, Peebles’ daughter sat behind me, softly crying. Her grandfather, Peebles’ father, sat next to me in a three-piece blue-striped suit. We were so tightly packed in our row of plastic chairs that his left leg was firmly pressed against my right. On my other side were Quentin’s uncle and younger brother. While Quentin lay on the gurney waiting to be poisoned, his brother signed to him. As children, they’d learned sign language because they had a cousin who couldn’t hear. Quentin mouthed his love for us and an apology to Peebles’ family.

On left: A 1999 photo of Quentin, which was part of his clemency petition. On right: A portrait of Quentin by former death row prisoner Jamie Cheek, drawn in response to Quentin’s execution.

This wasn’t new. Quentin confessed and pled guilty. He told the police and the jury he was sorry. In my meetings with him, he frequently and consistently expressed his regret and sorrow for the deep pain he’d caused the Peebles family. He never tried to evade responsibility for what he did.

Quentin also had extraordinary insight about his life and compassion for those who failed him: a mother who struggled with drug addiction and a father who faced his own demons, cycling from homelessness to more than a dozen involuntary commitments at Dorothea Dix hospital. Quentin was the oldest son and, to help his family, he turned to the crack-infested streets of Baltimore, joined a gang, and entered the drug trade.

Despite a diagnosis of PTSD rooted in his experience of childhood trauma, Quentin grew up during 16 years on death row. He never finished high school, but in prison he read and studied. Quentin had a quick mind and he was thoughtful. He wrote poetry and embraced spirituality, becoming a devout Muslim. He maintained relationships with his family, despite distance and poverty that made it difficult for them to visit. He was a supportive and bright light in the life of his pen pal, an English woman raising a child with autism. A psychologist was so touched by his work with Quentin that he came to the prison the day of the execution to say goodbye, and ended up staying through to the bitter end. Every lawyer who ever represented Quentin urged the governor to commute the death sentence.

Over the nine years I represented Quentin, I came to know his family, and they were at the prison all day and into the night of the execution. On that terrible day, the worst moment was telling Quentin’s family that the governor had denied clemency, there was nothing left, their son and brother would be killed in 90 minutes. His younger sister let out a howl that I can still hear now. She sounded like an animal dying in a trap.

A social worker and I then went to give Quentin the news. When we told him, and started sobbing, he gathered us into his arms and comforted us. Quentin was so much more than the worst thing he’d done. I often wondered, as I have with other clients, what he might have accomplished if someone had taken the time to see his potential as a child and to rescue him from the violence that surrounded him.

In the face of horrible crimes, we often ask, how could someone do this? After defending men and women facing the death penalty for close to three decades, I can tell you how: Allow children to grow up in poverty, incarcerate their fathers, deprive their mothers of mental health care and drug treatment, confine them in dangerous and violent neighborhoods, send them to underfunded and overcrowded schools, and permit school suspensions and juvenile arrests to limit their opportunities.

In the weeks after the execution, I thought of little else. I painstakingly retraced and second-guessed every decision I’d made in Quentin’s case. I talked to him while walking my dog.

I wished so much then and still wish now that I’d been able to convey Quentin’s humanity to the judges who ruled in his case and the governor who decided against commutation. Perhaps they, and the jurors who sentenced Quentin to death, thought they were rooting out evil, teaching a lesson, meting out justice. What I saw was another killing that perpetuated a cycle of violence and trauma that continues to play out in many lives, including mine.

Gretchen M. Engel is the executive director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation and has represented death row prisoners for more than 25 years.

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