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.
Last week, I went to visit a man who has lived on North Carolina’s 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.
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. A woman was rejected from his jury because the prosecutor was looking for “strong male” jurors.
The state Supreme Court recently agreed with two separate death row prisoners that questionable evidence was used at their trials. Both will get new chances to present evidence that could exonerate them. These cases highlight the fact that many of North Carolina’s more than 140 death sentences are based on weak and even false evidence.
At the end of August, our movement made history. A group of talented attorneys from across the state and the nation argued before the North Carolina Supreme Court. At issue […]
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. In fact, many American law enforcement officers are trained to conduct interrogations in ways that recklessly encourage false confessions.
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 will have to 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.
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 […]
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.
Charles Ray Finch was released from prison last week, 43 years after being 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 case for justice, or for anything other than a tragedy.
The families of Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha lost their children in a terrible and senseless crime that terrorized the entire Muslim community. Still, they have chosen the path of light and love. 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. And this week they supported the Durham DA’s decision not to pursue the death penalty at their killer’s trial.
States like North Carolina, have spent the last 47 years 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. One got a death sentence and one got life, and there is no rational reason why.
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. North Carolina, too, should make the enlightened choice to put an official end to the death penalty.
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.
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. But late last month, a statewide poll asked 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.
In 2018, for the second year in a row, juries didn’t hand down any new death sentences. We shouldn’t underestimate how significant that is in a state that, in the 1990s, sent dozens of people to death row every year. Executions remained on hold for a twelfth year. And even our state’s district attorneys have begun to flag in their enthusiasm for death sentences.
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. If Jimmy were retried now, he would never receive a death sentence. No Buncombe jury has sentenced anyone to death since 2000.
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. If anything, the death penalty in NC is more racist, more arbitrary, and threatens the lives of far more people.
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. A new report shows that, by today’s standards, most of them shouldn’t be there.
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.
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. Four years after Henry McCollum’s exoneration, jurors are still wrestling with their role.
On that terrible day, the worst moment was telling Quentin’s family that the governor had denied clemency, and that he 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.
Even with the number of death sentences slowed to a trickle, our state still can’t get it right in death penalty cases. The N.C. Supreme Court has just overturned the sentence of of a death row prisoner from Forsyth County, saying there was ample evidence that he had intellectual disabilities and mental illness that should have moved the jury to spare him from execution.
It’s starting to feel like Groundhog Day in Wake County. Every year begins with a capital trial, and every year, the jury chooses life. Wake is the only county in the state where a defendant has been tried capitally every year for the past three years. We’re hoping that, next year, we can skip this annual ritual.
In 2017, N.C. juries rejected the death penalty, more innocent people were released from death row, and public support for executions fell to a 45-year low. As we look to 2018, let’s skip the outdated death penalty rhetoric and start looking for solutions that actually make people safer — like properly staffing prisons and supplying guards with working radios.
My client, Terry Ball, slipped away with barely a mention after living on N.C. death row for almost 25 years. I believe his life is worth remembering, and that his story, like all my clients’ stories, hold keys to understanding the origins of crime and our shared humanity with people labeled the worst of the worst.
A little-known aspect of the death penalty is its impact on jurors who must make life-and-death decisions without any of their usual support networks. For jurors, seeking trusted advice and doing independent research is an understandable impulse — but it’s also against the law.
The question our society should be asking is not: Do you believe that people who commit murders should be punished? The answer to that is obvious. The question that gets to the heart of the matter is: What’s the fairest, most efficient, and most effective way to punish people who commit the worst crimes? When you ask it that way, the death penalty is clearly not the answer.
Last week, the Supreme Court halted the execution of Keith Tharpe in Georgia because of a juror’s admission that he voted for death because he believed Tharpe was a “n—-r.” It might be tempting to believe this case was just an anomaly. But Keith Tharpe is far from the only defendant to be sentenced to death by a deeply racist juror.
Almost every time people discuss the death penalty on social media, at least one person chimes in with this opinion: We should execute people because it’s too expensive to keep them in prison for life. But the truth is, the death penalty costs far more than life without parole. Please read this post and help us spread the truth about the wasteful, inefficient death penalty.
Prosecutors might tell you they need the death penalty to punish the “worst of the worst.” But in practice, that’s not how the death penalty is used in North Carolina. Our state spends millions each year to pursue death sentences that are arbitrary and unnecessary, and uses the threat of death as a negotiation tactic to pressure defendants to accept plea bargains — sometimes putting innocent lives on the line.
A man who spent nearly 20 years on death row was recently re-sentenced to life in prison without parole. It was a sane resolution to a senseless and much-regretted crime committed by a deeply troubled teenager. Phillip Davis was re-sentenced with the full of support Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams. If only more North Carolina district attorneys would consider resolving decades-old cases with evidence of prosecutorial misconduct.
Ken retired in 2017 from the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, where he earned his reputation as one of North Carolina’s most respected and visionary death penalty attorneys. Through 35 years of fighting the N.C. death penalty, Ken never lost the idealism or the passion that has driven him since his earliest days. He never stopped being surprised — and outraged — at injustice. And he never stopped plotting to outwit the machinery of death.