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.
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.
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.
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.
Meet Paul Brown, a man living while waiting to die. He has been on North Carolina’s death row since 2000, awaiting an execution that may never come. He makes no excuses for his crime, and he doesn’t lament his punishment. He began writing a few years ago simply to answer the question: How do I make something of the life I have left?
Guilt rains down on my head like brimstone when I think of the challenges she’ll face, knowing that I’m supposed to be there to help her navigate the pitfalls she won’t be able to see or anticipate. I try to be creative and say grandfatherly things, and hope they’ll somehow make a difference in her life. I know I must speak with assurance even though my own circumstances are tenuous.
Death row inmate Paul Brown’s lovely tale of geese nesting in the prison yard — and how the hopefulness of new life inspires compassion in condemned men. “Having no contact with our families for such a long time — for some of us, it’s been more than 20 years since we’ve had any meaningful human contact — the instinct to care still comes naturally… Some of us are barely hospitable with each other, yet we’re all attentive and accommodating to the birds.”
I can only remember certain sounds. Mrs. Carter was walking back and forth on Savannah Street crying and screaming “Oh God, his poor momma, his poor momma!” Everyone else seemed to be standing as far away as they could, but still trying to see. I suppose I could have been among them, but I was stuck; my eyes glued to the corpse.
Paul Brown has spent 16 years on N.C.’s death row. Recently, he has begun recording the stories of his life. Paul’s essays offer no simple conclusions. They are the record of a complicated and broken life. Yet, they speak poignantly to what it means to be human.
I have spent three decades advocating for convicted murderers, people whose lives have been deemed worthless. However, my career has taught me that executions say less about the criminals than they do about us, the society that carries them out.