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.

N.C. Supreme Court overturns death sentence for disabled man

 

Justices' benches at the Supreme Court of the State of North Carolina

June 12, 2018

Just three people have been sentenced to death in North Carolina in the past five years. But even with the number of death sentences slowed to a trickle, our state still can’t get it right.

Last week, the N.C. Supreme Court overturned the sentence of Juan Rodriguez, who was sentenced to death in 2014 in Forsyth County. The court said there was ample evidence that Rodriguez had intellectual disabilities and mental illness that impaired his ability to understand his actions or make rational decisions — factors that should have moved the jury to spare him from the death penalty.

Yet, the jury was not instructed to consider Rodriguez’s serious intellectual and mental disabilities. Had they been told to take them into account, the court said, there is a good chance they would have voted to spare Rodriguez’s life. Rodriguez will now get a new sentencing hearing, and another chance to prove that he is legally ineligible for the death penalty.

Rodriguez grew up in severe poverty in El Salvador during a bloody civil war. As a young child he endured gun fights and bomb blasts and saw dead bodies on his way to school. He was frequently hungry, had little or no medical care, and was exposed to pesticides and contaminated water. When he was 16 years old, his brother was killed by guerrillas after joining the army and Rodriguez had to retrieve his brother’s body and bring it home. He scored just 61 on an IQ test, placing him in the lowest 2 percent of the population. Experts say he suffers from lifelong disabilities, made worse by the trauma he endured as a child.

Rodriguez was convicted of killing his estranged wife, Maria Rodriguez, in 2010. She had recently left him after enduring years of abuse. The crime, which left their three children without parents, certainly warrants punishment — but the death penalty was not appropriate in this case.

The death penalty is given to just a tiny fraction of people who commit murder and is intended only for the most culpable defendants. Yet, the system continues to prove itself incapable of correctly deciding which defendants should live and which should die.

At least nine of the men sentenced to death in North Carolina have been innocent. Many more — like Rodriguez — are people with disabilities, mental illness, and horribly traumatic childhoods that make them not the worst of the worst, but the most vulnerable among us.