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

43 years after death sentence, Charles Ray Finch proves his innocence

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Charles Ray Finch in 2015.
Charles Ray Finch in 2015. Photo by Brad Coville, Wilson Daily Times.

A man who was sentenced to death in North Carolina may soon be exonerated after spending more than 40 years in prison.

Last week, a federal court said Charles Ray Finch — who was sentenced to death in 1976, but later resentenced to life because of changes to state death penalty laws — is entitled to a new hearing to determine whether he is innocent. The court also discounted nearly every piece of evidence used to convict Finch of murder.

The verdict was the result of work by Duke University’s Innocence Clinic, which has been investigating Finch’s case since 2001. Finch has claimed innocence since the day of his arrest, but other courts had refused to consider the evidence he offered. He is now 80 years old. Finch’s lawyers are  asking Attorney General Josh Stein to agree to his release, since the court ruling said no rational jury would convict him based on the evidence available today.

According to the opinion, one witness who testified against Finch has since recanted, saying that police and prosecutors pressured him into identifying Finch as the killer. All of the physical evidence that police said connected Finch to the crime has been discredited.

Most importantly, the testimony of the state’s main eyewitness was proven unreliable. Lester Jones was working in a convenience store alongside Richard Holloman when three men robbed the store and shot Holloman to death. Jones was unable to describe the shooter’s face, but told police the man was wearing a three-quarter length jacket. That night, during three separate lineups, Finch was the only suspect wearing a three-quarter length jacket. Such highly suggestive lineups have been proven to lead to false identifications and are now illegal.

Other people who were convicted based on questionable eyewitness identifications remain on death row in North Carolina. For example, Elrico Fowler was sentenced to death in 1997 based largely on the testimony of an eyewitness. Despite having seen only one suspect, the witness picked several other men in photographic lineups — and when he was first shown Fowler in a photo lineup, he failed to identify him. He only picked Fowler in a second photo lineup administered several days after the crime, after the same photo of Fowler had appeared in the newspaper listing him as a suspect. And the witness became certain of his identification only after investigators told him that he picked the right person.

Virtually every aspect of Fowler’s identification is now illegal, thanks to reforms meant to prevent mistaken IDs. Yet, Fowler remains on death row because of a tainted police lineup from 20 years ago. [Learn more about how most of North Carolina’s death row prisoners were tried under obsolete laws.]

As long as we have the death penalty, innocent people will be in danger of execution. How many more people must be exonerated before North Carolina ends the death penalty?

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.

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.

Time to move on: Calls for death penalty fall flat in N.C.

December 17, 2017

Maybe you heard that N.C. legislative leaders called last week for executions to return to North Carolina. It’s one of the oldest political tricks in the book, whipping up fervor for the death penalty to score points with conservative voters.

But in 2017, more than 11 years after North Carolina’s last execution, it’s starting to feel a bit retro.

Let’s take a look back at this year:

There were just four capital trials in North Carolina and juries rejected the death penalty at every one of them. This means N.C. juries have sent just one person to death row in the past three and a half years.

Most N.C. district attorneys didn’t seek the death penalty at all, and some said they see no point in continuing to pursue death sentences. Life without parole is a harsh punishment suitable for the worst crimes.

Four more U.S. death row inmates were exonerated, and a Gallup poll found death penalty support was at its lowest point in 45 years.

A N.C. death row inmate won a new trial after the vast majority of the evidence against him was discredited. Michael Patrick Ryan, who has always claimed his innocence, is awaiting his new day in court to prove he was wrongly convicted in 2010.

Other states that tried to carry out executions continued to botch them terribly and scramble for lethal drugs.

[Read the Center for Death Penalty Litigation’s year-end report on the state of the N.C. death penalty.]

In light of those facts, North Carolina looks pretty smart to have stayed out of the execution business for another year.

The truth is, resuming executions would do nothing to solve today’s problems. Instead, we would be executing people who were tried 15, 20, or even 30 years ago — before a slew of reforms intended to protect innocent people and ensure fair trials. More than three-quarters of North Carolina’s 143 death row inmates were tried at least 15 years ago.

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.