We often hear about wrongful convictions in death penalty cases, leading to innocent people spending years or decades on death row. But another, often hidden problem is wrongful death penalty prosecutions — cases where innocent people are charged with capital murder and tried for their lives only to eventually be cleared of all charges. These innocent people, while never convicted, spend years in jail, and lose their jobs, savings, reputations and family relationships. Dozens of people have been capitally prosecuted in North Carolina despite evidence too weak to prove their guilt, showing that the death penalty is used broadly and indiscriminately instead of being reserved for the “worst of the worst.”
In the Center for Death Penalty Litigation’s 2015 report, On Trial for Their Lives: The Hidden Costs of Wrongful Capital Prosecutions in North Carolina, authors pored over case files, court records, and news reports, contacted attorneys, and interviewed the accused to find cases in which a person was charged with capital murder and eventually acquitted by a jury or had all charges related to the crime dismissed by the state. The report found 56 wrongful capital prosecutions over 26 years, or an average of two each year. These unjust prosecutions had a devastating impact on the lives of the defendants — as well as a large public cost.
The report found that, between 1989 and 2015:
- The state spent nearly $2.4 million in defense costs alone to pursue these failed cases capitally. (This conservative figure does not take into account the additional prosecution, court, and incarceration costs in capital cases.)
- Defendants who were wrongfully prosecuted spent an average of two years in jail before they were acquitted by juries or had their charges dismissed by prosecutors.
- The 56 defendants in the study spent a total of 112 years in jail, despite never being convicted of a crime.
- By the time they were cleared of wrongdoing, many people lost their homes, jobs, businesses, and savings accounts, and saw personal relationships destroyed. They received no compensation after they were cleared of charges.
- Serious errors or misconduct played a role in many cases. The 56 cases involved instances of witness coercion, hidden evidence, bungled investigations, the use of improper forensic evidence, and highly unreliable witnesses.
Read about some of the lives affected by wrongful prosecution below.
Jerry Anderson spent a lifetime building the 1,500-cow dairy farm he owned in rural Caldwell County. At age 46, he lost it all in the space of a few months, after he was arrested for the murder of his wife, Emily Anderson. He spent 18 months in jail and was tried for his life, even though no credible evidence connected him to the crime.
During his death penalty trial in July 2007, it became apparent that Emily died days after Jerry last saw her, during a time when he was searching for her with friends and family. The trial ended with a hung jury — eleven jurors voting not guilty and the lone holdout telling the press that he had a vision in which God told him to vote guilty. Prosecutors dropped the charges and never retried Jerry.
Jerry regained his freedom, but he says he will never be able to repair all the damage from being accused of a murder he did not commit. He moved back to his native Kentucky and settled into a mostly solitary existence, unsure how people would respond to his story. “You’re branded with it,” Jerry said. “To a lot of people, you’re guilty and they couldn’t prove it. You’re never innocent.”
Emily disappeared on Dec. 29, 2005. For days, Jerry and fellow church members searched the county. He allowed officers to search his farm and interview his employees. He submitted to a polygraph test, which he passed.
Nine days after she disappeared, Emily’s truck was found at a Quality Inn in South Carolina. Officers from the Caldwell County Sheriff’s Department went to pick it up, but failed to conduct a thorough search. It was the tow truck driver, after hauling the vehicle 120 miles back to North Carolina, who discovered Emily’s body in the large toolbox in the truck bed. She had been shot twice.
The sheriff’s department’s blunder made the news, and the sheriff, who was facing a contentious reelection campaign, had to admit to reporters that he had no suspects. Soon after, Jerry felt the investigation close in on him. He was arrested on January 27, 2006. His business collapsed quickly. Creditors auctioned off his cows, tractors, and farm equipment. He lost the down payment on a new home and dairy he and Emily were planning in Tennessee. Creditors and members of Emily’s family filed lawsuits against him.
After 18 months in jail, the prosecutor offered him a deal: If he pled guilty to second-degree murder, he could be out of prison in five years. Set on proving his innocence, he refused.
At his trial, two medical examiners concluded that Emily died two to four days before her body was discovered. The state’s theory of Jerry’s guilt hinged on Emily having been dead for at least nine days, but the prosecutor produced no medical experts to support that theory.
It also became clear that evidence that might have pointed to the killer was ignored. A rape kit was taken from Emily’s body but never tested. Witnesses who reported that they saw Emily alive in South Carolina after her disappearance were never interviewed. Hairs found in her truck were not tested.
Jerry said he concluded that the criminal justice system is not about seeking truth. Rather, it’s about each side trying to prove its own theory, sometimes in spite of the evidence. “It’s about winning,” Jerry says. “It doesn’t matter who’s right and who’s wrong.”
For more on Jerry’s case, see ontrialfortheirlives.org
At 46, Leslie Lincoln was making a comeback from a painful divorce. She had just bought a house across the street from the land where her three horses grazed. She had a new boyfriend. She had recently landed a good job as an administrator at an assisted living facility making $42,000 a year, the most she had ever earned.
Then, in March 2002, her mother, Arlene Lincoln, was found beaten and stabbed to death in her home in Greenville, N.C. Leslie, who lived nearby and visited her mother often, had been the last known person to see her alive. Six months later, Leslie was charged with the murder and the prosecutor said he would seek the death penalty.
It would take five years—during which she was falsely implicated by flawed DNA evidence—before Leslie was finally acquitted by a jury. During that time, she lost her home, her savings, and her stability. Since her acquittal in 2007, she has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and has drifted in and out of homelessness. She still grieves her mother’s death and cannot accept that the person who killed her will never be found.
“It takes a hole out of your heart, and you just can’t fill it back up again,” she says. “You try to pour good memories in, but the bad ones get in.”
Leslie spent more than three years in jail awaiting trial, during which she was never allowed outside and saw the outdoors only through a frosted window. During one jail visit, her attorney shocked her with the news that police had found her DNA in a bloody handprint left at the crime scene. Her lawyer requested that the sample be retested, but the state lab refused. He went to a private lab instead, and new tests uncovered a critical mistake: the DNA samples had been switched, and the DNA identified as Leslie Lincoln’s had actually belonged to her mother. In truth, none of Leslie’s DNA was found at the crime scene. Leslie says she will never be sure whether the incorrect results were the result of an error or an intentional effort to implicate her.
After the bungled DNA testing, the prosecutor took the death penalty off the table but continued to pursue first-degree murder charges. Prosecutors began offering to dismiss charges against other jail inmates, in return for testimony against Leslie. They used the testimony of two snitches at trial. Still, the jury took less than an hour and a half to find her not guilty.
By the time she was exonerated, Leslie had little to return to. Her horses and truck had been sold, her dogs had died, and her boyfriend had left her. She couldn’t find a good job, and had to take part-time work in fast food restaurants. She moved into an apartment, but couldn’t earn enough to hold on to it. Her grief over her mother’s death, pent up for five years, began to overtake her. She saw a psychiatrist and was prescribed medications for anxiety and depression, but still wore out the patience of close family members. She ended up moving into a homeless shelter and, in 2013, she spent several months living in her truck.
She says she never received an apology from police or prosecutors.“You just feel so helpless because you’re just this one little person. You want to say, ‘Don’t do this to anybody else.’”
For more on Leslie’s case, see ontrialfortheirlives.org
Mike Mead was newly engaged and about to have a child. Then, on July 16, 2008, he got a call: His fiancée, Lucy Johnson, had been shot to death and her house set on fire. Mead immediately thought of Lucy’s ex-boyfriend—the two were involved in a bitter custody fight over their infant son—but months went by and no one was arrested. Then, six months after Lucy’s death, police finally made an arrest. They charged Mike with capital murder.
“It’s like a light switch was flicked, and my entire world came crumbling down,” Mike wrote shortly after his arrest, in a letter to friends and family.
In 2011, Mike was tried for his life in Gaston County and acquitted by a jury. There was not a shred of physical evidence linking Mike to the murder.
Like many modern couples, Mike and Lucy met on an online dating site. They knew each other only three months, but Mike says they felt an immediate connection. By the time Lucy died, she was pregnant with Mike’s child. He says they were both excited about the baby, and less than a week before her death, he asked her to marry him.
Mike submitted to interrogation without an attorney, searches of his home, gunshot residue tests, and a polygraph test—believing that police would recognize his innocence. Instead, in January 2009, they issued a warrant for his arrest. The prosecutor announced he would seek the death penalty.
Mike owned a successful engineering consulting business, which quickly collapsed. He sold his possessions and declared bankruptcy. On top of his legal bills, he had to pay monthly for his electronic monitoring bracelet. By the time of his trial, the cost topped $15,000, and he was never reimbursed. The bank foreclosed on his house a few months after he was acquitted.
Meanwhile, Mike’s attorney found that police had virtually no evidence to support their case. The attorney focused on the father of Lucy’s 6-month-old son, James Spelock, who had become enraged when Lucy refused to name the child after him. Since the child’s birth, the pair had been fighting over custody and child support. Lucy told friends she was afraid of James, and she wrote in her diary that if anything were to happen to her, James would be the culprit.
At trial, Mike’s defense team presented a strong case that James was the person with motive and opportunity. They also tore apart the state’s case against Mike, and caught investigators in a lie. At trial, police claimed that, after Lucy was found shot to death, they never tested Mike for gunshot residue. On cross-examination, police finally admitted that a gunshot residue test had been performed; they then claimed the test results had been lost.
At the end of the trial, with no physical evidence and their case unraveling, the state put a jailhouse snitch on the stand to testify that Mike had confessed to him during the few weeks he spent in jail. Mike says he had never met the snitch. The man’s testimony was so unbelievable that, by the time the snitch left the stand, the judge and jury were laughing.
After the verdict, Mike walked across the street to a hotel bar, where he found several members of the jury. He says they bought him drinks and cheered his freedom.
For more on Mike’s case, see ontrialfortheirlives.org