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.

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.

A life condemned: Remembering my client who died on death row

Terry Ball at the end of his life

By Elizabeth Hambourger

November 14, 2017

I’m a capital defense lawyer. At any given time, I represent a dozen or more men and women who are either on death row or charged with first-degree murder. Death is an inescapable part of my work, but that’s been true this year more than most. In January, my client Ricky “Coolie” Gray was executed in Virginia. And although North Carolina has not executed anyone in over a decade, those confined to our death row are beginning to die of old age and sickness. In October, my client Terry Ball died of natural causes at Central Prison. Much has been written about Coolie’s life. Terry, by contrast, slipped away with barely a mention after living on 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.

Terry grew up in Mansfield, Ohio. His parents lost their first-born child in a farming accident, but they did their loving best for Terry and his sister. Terry’s problems seem to have begun at age 10, when he was hit by a car and spent eight weeks in the hospital. The head trauma he suffered permanently changed him. His grades fell and he became defiant with his parents. However, the severity of his brain injury was not fully diagnosed at the time.

Perhaps it was because of this brain damage that Terry made the fateful decision to run away from home at 13. He was in love with a girl named Kim and their parents didn’t approve of the relationship, so Terry and Kim ran off together to Cincinnati. A man named Jerry Wood approached the pair at a bus station and offered them a place to stay. Terry and Kim gratefully accepted, having no idea that Wood was not only a career criminal but a serial rapist of runaway and neglected boys. Wood was at that very moment wanted by police for felony assault.

Elizabeth Hambourger

Wood quickly put Kim on a bus back home but forced Terry to remain with him for the next month, raping him repeatedly, keeping him high on drugs, and forcing him to steal. Eventually Terry managed to escape. But when he returned home, he was treated not as a victim but a delinquent and placed in a juvenile detention center as punishment for running away.

Terry’s parents and the mental health workers at the detention center seemed unable to confront the reality that Terry had been raped. Because of the stigma and misinformation surrounding homosexuality in the 1970s, they worried that he was gay instead of treating him as a victim of sexual assault. One psychiatrist wrote: “When he was away from home, he traveled all over the country with a 32-year-old male. This association raised the question of possible homosexuality; Terry denies this… The parents… at the present time appear to be concerned in case the label of homosexual will be applied to Terry.” Terry never received any treatment or even recognition of the trauma he’d been through, and Jerry Wood was never prosecuted for it. Today, Wood is serving a 45-year sentence in Pennsylvania for the rapes of two other children.

Without treatment, Terry turned to drug use, a trick he’d learned from Jerry Wood to dull his pain, shame, and rage. He enlisted, but was discharged from the Navy because of addiction and then committed several violent drug-motivated robberies. He served prison terms for beating a woman with a hammer and slitting a young man’s throat. By some stroke of luck, both victims survived.

In 1990, released from prison and living in Washington, N.C., Terry discovered crack cocaine. He checked himself into three treatment centers in three years, desperate to kick his addiction.  During one of those stints, he met his wife Sherry. He joined Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous and held down a maintenance job. He also began attending a local church pastored by Tony Krantz.

Krantz lived in Washington with his wife, Laura, and two school-aged children. Terry confided in Tony and Laura about his addiction, and they tried to help. Tony took him fishing. But one night in June 1993, Terry relapsed. He binged on crack and pills until he ran out. Then, desperate for money to buy more, he went to the Krantz home.

It was 4:30 a.m. when Tony Krantz found Terry at his front door. Terry said he wanted to talk and Tony poured him a Dr. Pepper at the kitchen table. Suddenly, Terry attacked him with a knife. Seriously injured, Tony managed to call 911 before running for help. In the meantime, Tony’s wife Laura had come downstairs. Terry stabbed her 17 times before running out of the house. Laura bled to death with her children beside her.

Terry was sentenced to death just seven months later. This was the mid-90s, when North Carolina juries were handing out dozens of death sentences a year. Like many people tried during those years, Terry’s story of childhood trauma and brain damage was barely told at trial. If his trial were today, this mitigating evidence would have been thoroughly presented and likely would have persuaded a jury to sentence him to life without parole instead of death.

Terry lived on death row for 24 years. His case churned ever-so-slowly through the appeals process, hitting one delay after another. His mother and sister died and Terry’s health deteriorated. For the last few years he was confined to a wheelchair in constant pain. He was only 59 when he died. It was a hard life, but I am grateful he passed away in his cell, near the other condemned men who had become his family, rather than spending his final days in the miserable solitary confinement of the Central Prison hospital.

Terry Ball caused a lot of pain in his life, and he also experienced more than his share. The same is certainly true of Coolie and most of the thousands of men and women still on our nation’s death rows. This is who we sentence to death: the most damaged, the most abused; traumatized children who grow into adults without learning how to cope with their fear and anger. The death penalty says these lives have no value. I disagree.

Why North Carolina’s death penalty is not for the “worst of the worst”

By Gretchen M. Engel
Reposted from the blog of N.C. Policy Watch

Henry McCollum innocent man on death row
The justice system said Henry McCollum was the “worst of the worst.” He turned out to be innocent.

Since Arkansas shocked the world by trying to execute eight people in 10 days just to beat the expiration date on its lethal drugs, there has been more talk about the death penalty in North Carolina.

Most recently, WUNC’s Rusty Jacobs did a piece on where the death penalty stands, almost 11 years after North Carolina’s last execution. It revealed serious concerns about executing innocent people, and explained why it’s far more expensive to execute than to sentence people to life in prison.

However, one concept goes unchallenged in many stories about the death penalty: The naïve idea that the death penalty is used only in those rare, “worst of the worst” cases. Having spent my entire career up-close with North Carolina’s capital punishment system, I can tell you that’s not how it truly works.

First, let’s look at the 147 people on death row in North Carolina. More than three-quarters of them were sentenced more than 15 years ago, during an era in which North Carolina had one of the highest death-sentencing rates in the nation — even higher than Texas and Florida. Far from using the death penalty only in a handful of the most shocking crimes, execution was pursued Wild West-style in nearly every first-degree murder case.

During those years, we had a law unlike any other in the nation, which required prosecutors to seek the death penalty in every first-degree murder case with an aggravating factor. And, of course, the law is written so broadly that an aggravating factor can be found in almost any intentional killing.

Prosecutors were required to push for execution without regard to mitigating factors, or evidence that pointed to possible innocence. Even they thought this was a terrible idea, and they recommended the law be changed.

The General Assembly ended this requirement in 2001, but by then, death row had swollen to more than 200 people, more than 100 of whom remain there today. All of them were tried without the benefit of reforms intended to ensure fairness and prevent the conviction of innocent people.

There was, for example, no requirement that confessions be recorded. In many cases, the state presented unreliable forensic testing and “junk” science, and defendants were sentenced to death by juries selected in a racially-discriminatory fashion. Some of them, like Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, were innocent. Most would never have received death sentences under today’s laws. These are the people who would be first in line if our execution chamber were to crank up.

Next, consider how the death penalty is used today. Do prosecutors use their discretion to carefully cherry-pick death penalty cases? Absolutely not.

In reality, our justice system runs on pleas. Prosecutors use the death penalty as leverage, to persuade reluctant defendants to plead guilty and accept life sentences.

It works like this: The vast majority of murders are initially charged capitally, and pleas are negotiated from there. The theory is that a defendant facing the threat of execution is more likely to accept whatever deal the state offers. Pursuing the death penalty even when the prosecutor thinks the case is not execution-worthy makes a mockery of justice.

Defendants who refuse a deal are often our most vulnerable clients: those who are mentally impaired, those who least trust their lawyers, or those who are innocent and refuse to plead guilty. People who refuse plea deals represent the vast majority of people who are tried capitally in North Carolina today.

This means a defendant’s chance of facing the death penalty depends less on the crime than on a willingness to accept a life sentence without a trial. Often, several defendants are involved in a crime. Some accept a deal and get a life sentence, while another — maybe not even the most culpable — ends up on trial for his life.

Juries can see that the people who go to trial are not the “worst of the worst.” Look at the two capital trials in North Carolina this year. Both defendants were offered pleas but insisted on going to trial.

The first trial, in Wake County, ended with a verdict of life imprisonment. This marked eight times in a row that a Wake jury has chosen life over death. In the second, just this month, a Robeson County jury not only rejected a death sentence but refused even to convict the defendant of first-degree murder. He was found guilty of second-degree murder.

Prosecutors might tell you they need the death penalty to punish the “worst of the worst.” But in practice, our state spends millions to pursue death sentences that are arbitrary and unnecessary, and uses the threat of death as a negotiation tactic — sometimes putting innocent lives on the line.

Gretchen Engel is the Executive Director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation.