Finding redemption & beauty on North Carolina’s death row

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Last week, I went to visit a man who has lived on North Carolina death row for 19 years. We talked about books and writing and art. He told me about the two plants he dug up from the prison yard and now keeps in his cell.

Each morning, he moves them into a patch of light near the window. He plays classical music, because he read that it helps plants grow. As he tends to them, he thinks of his grandmother. He used to tell her she was crazy to talk to her plants. Now, he’s past 50, about the age his grandmother was in his memory, talking to his own plants on death row.

He reminded me that our work to end the death penalty isn’t just theoretical. It’s about believing in the possibility of every human life. Bryan Stevenson is right: People are so much more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.

We’ve now gone 13 years without an execution in North Carolina, but the death penalty is still a threat. People are still being tried capitally, and after two years without any new death sentences, we had three this year in North Carolina. Our state continues to have one of the nation’s largest death rows – 143 men and women living under death sentences.

But this year was also full of bright spots that give us hope. The North Carolina Supreme Court agreed to take on the legislature’s repeal of the Racial Justice Act, and lawyers for six death row prisoners made historic arguments exposing the ways that race infects the death penalty. Polling, both in North Carolina and nationally, showed that a clear majority of people now prefer alternatives to capital punishment over executions. Another innocent person, once sentenced to death, was exonerated and released from prison in North Carolina. And Henry McCollum, who was North Carolina’s longest serving death row prisoner when he was exonerated in 2014, joined our Coalition and began attending meetings.

Exonerated North Carolina death row prisoner Henry McCollum
Henry McCollum at a NCCADP meeting in 2019

As we end 2019, let’s celebrate our victories and renew our commitment. Let’s also remember who we’re fighting for: People who have caused great pain but still have something to give. People who sometimes find redemption even in the darkest places.

When you think of death row, think of the man I saw last week. Sitting on the other side of thick glass and bars, he told me a story.

Earlier this year, he was outside for rec time when a ladybug landed on his arm. He spent the next hour watching it crawl on his shirt, marveling at a tiny spot of beauty in a world of razor wire and armed guards. When it was time to go inside, another prisoner asked if he would take it inside and make it a pet. “No,” he said, “I don’t want to take anything into prison.” He let it fly away.

He is keenly aware of his mistakes and how much he’s taken from others. He felt he deserved worse when the judge pronounced his death sentence.

In the years since, the state has done its best to take everything from him. But he is still here. Day by day, he is figuring out how to live on death row – and how to nurture what he can.

Please help nurture justice and hope in 2020 by making a year-end contribution to the NC Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. Your donation will ensure that North Carolina never again executes a human being. Donate here.

—Kristin Collins, Dec. 17, 2019



NC case shines rare light on sexism in death penalty jury selection

CDPL Attorney Elizabeth Hambourger, expert on death penalty jury selection
CDPL Attorney Elizabeth Hambourger

CDPL attorney Elizabeth Hambourger has studied the ways that stereotypes affect who sits on death penalty juries in North Carolina criminal cases. In this guest post, she writes about a new case of jury bias making its way through the state’s courts.

By Elizabeth Hambourger

Until the middle of the 20th century, the law barred women from jury service. The myth was that women are weak and overly emotional, not rational enough to serve on juries.

A brief filed in late September in a North Carolina death penalty case shines a rare light on the persistence of sexist stereotypes in the legal system. Bryan Bell was sentenced to death in Sampson County in 2001. In 2010, he filed a claim under the Racial Justice Act, citing statistics that revealed a sweeping pattern of race discrimination in capital jury selection. The prosecutor in Bell’s case, Greg Butler, excluded several black citizens from Bell’s jury. Among them was an African American woman named Viola Morrow.

In response to the statistical pattern revealed by the RJA, Butler submitted a remarkable affidavit. To defend himself from the charges of race discrimination, Butler explained that he struck Morrow from the jury, not because she was black but because she was a woman. Butler said he rejected Morrow because he “was looking for a male juror and potential foreperson.” In another capital trial, Butler confessed that he excluded two women because he was “looking for strong male jurors.”

It‘s unconstitutional for a lawyer to use either race or gender as a factor in jury selection. In 1994, in J.E.B. v. Alabama, the Supreme Court rejected the very type of sexist reasoning Butler expressed in his affidavits: that women are not “strong” enough for jury service, that women are not capable of handling the leadership role of foreperson.  The Court said it would not tolerate jury strikes based on these “invidious, archaic, and overbroad” stereotypes.

In J.E.B., the justices also recognized that, if they condoned jury discrimination on the basis of gender, lawyers might use it as a way to disguise race discrimination in jury selection.  It certainly seems possible that’s exactly what Butler was trying to do when he crafted his affidavit. But whether based on race or gender, his actions were not only unacceptable but illegal.

The only way to stop such blatant discrimination is for courts to overturn convictions when it happens. Unfortunately, North Carolina appellate courts have a shameful record when it comes to policing jury discrimination: they have never overturned a single conviction on grounds that a juror was discriminated against on the basis of race or gender. But Bell’s is the unusual case in which a prosecutor openly admitted discriminating. If Butler’s affidavit doesn’t prove discrimination, what does? Nevertheless, the first court to consider the affidavit simply ignored it and upheld Bell’s conviction.

Now our state Supreme Court has an opportunity to make clear that women belong on North Carolina juries and that our state will not tolerate discrimination on the basis of misogynistic myths. Significantly, three of the seven Supreme Court justices hearing the case will be women, the most women ever to serve on our Court at once. One might well wonder whether prosecutor Greg Butler thinks these accomplished women are “strong” enough to be Supreme Court justices.  Of course, this time, they’ll be the ones judging him.

Two death-sentenced men in NC get another chance to prove innocence

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We’re waiting on the N.C. Supreme Court to rule in the Racial Justice Act cases that were argued in August. In the meantime, the court is taking on other injustices on North Carolina’s death row.

Last week, the state Supreme Court agreed with two separate death row prisoners that questionable evidence was used at their trials. Both will get new chances to present evidence that could exonerate them.

The court ruled that Michael Patrick Ryan should get a new trial, nine years after he was sent to death row by Gaston County prosecutors who falsified DNA evidence and intimidated alibi witnesses. And in Michael Sherrill’s case, the court granted a hearing where he can present evidence that he, too, deserves a new trial. Sherrill was sentenced to death in large part because of baseless accusations that he’d committed a triple murder, in addition to the murder for which he was on trial. Both men claim their innocence.

These cases highlight the fact that many of North Carolina’s more than 140 death sentences are based on weak and even false evidence. CDPL’s report Unequal Justice highlighted that most death row prisoners were tried before 2001, during a decade when North Carolina sentenced record numbers of people to death and a series of important reforms were not yet in place. But Sherrill was tried in 2009 and Ryan in 2010, showing that modern reforms have still not ensured fair trials for people facing execution.

In Ryan’s case, the Supreme Court affirmed a lower court ruling, which found that prosecutors misled the jury with a false DNA test. The prosecution’s expert told the jury that that Ryan’s DNA could not be excluded from a DNA mixture found on items stolen from the murder victim. The prosecution presented a color-coded chart which appeared to show Ryan was a contributor to the DNA mixture. The problem is, the State’s expert did not follow accepted standards in analyzing the DNA evidence. DNA experts using appropriate protocols determined that Ryan was not a contributor and that the State’s evidence was false.

A prosecution investigator also intimidated three alibi witnesses who could have confirmed Ryan’s claim that, at the time of the murder, he and his 13-year-old daughter were stranded on the side of the road with his broken down truck. The investigator improperly interviewed Ryan’s daughter without a parent present and threatened other witnesses with arrest.

Ryan’s is one of several Gaston County murder cases that have been discredited. Mark Carver won a new trial earlier this year after being sentenced to life in prison, and Mike Mead was acquitted in a case where prosecutors sought the death penalty against him.

In the second case, Michael Sherrill was convicted and sentenced to death in 2009 for a single murder that occurred 25 years earlier. However, at his trial, prosecutors presented extensive testimony about a triple murder, which they said Sherrill had also committed. The court allowed evidence about the triple murder because it helped to prove Sherrill’s guilt and eligibility for the death penalty in the single murder.

However, Sherrill’s attorneys never investigated compelling evidence that someone else committed the triple murder, in part because one of them had previously represented the other suspect and had a conflict of interest. The State eventually dropped all charges against Sherrill in the triple murder, but that was more than five years after the accusations had helped send him to death row.

Sherrill will now get to argue for a new trial that isn’t polluted by unfounded allegations about a triple murder. Sherrill says he is innocent of both the triple murder and the murder that sent him to death row.

Judging by these two decisions, it appears that this N.C. Supreme Court wants to see the whole truth come out in death penalty cases.

A history-making day in the North Carolina Supreme Court

The Racial Justice Act legal team

At the end of August, our movement made history. A group of talented attorneys from across the state and the nation argued before the North Carolina Supreme Court. At issue were the cases of six men and women on death row who have uncovered compelling proof that their sentences were poisoned by racial discrimination. All six filed claims under the North Carolina Racial Justice Act (RJA). Black citizens were illegally excluded from their juries. At least two defendants were tried amid public threats of lynching, and in one case those threats came from members of the jury pool. One defendant was referred to by a racial slur in open court … by the prosecutor. The evidence of racism is crystal clear.


Sylvia Golphin, mother of Tilmon Golphin

At Tilmon Golphin’s trial, two white members of the jury pool were overheard saying he “never should have made it out of the woods” where he fled while police were trying to arrest him for murder. Those two people were never removed from the jury pool.


Shirley Burns, left, and Tawana Choate, the mothers of Marcus Robinson and Quintel Augustine

At Quintel Augustine’s trial, the prosecutor wrote notes such as “blk wino” about the races of prospective jurors and then struck all the black jurors, leaving a black defendant to be sentenced to death by an all-white jury. At Marcus Robinson’s trial, prosecutors singled out black prospective jurors with demeaning questions, like whether they failed in school or knew how to read. No white jurors were asked such questions.


Attorney Jay Ferguson, right, with Brian Stull of the ACLU

During the arguments, attorneys for the North Carolina Attorney General’s Office did not dispute the evidence of discrimination. In fact, they admitted that racism in capital trials is serious and must be dealt with. But they asked the Supreme Court to deny the cases and leave the defendants to litigate their discrimination claims in the lower courts, which have failed for decades to root out racial discrimination in the death penalty. The RJA attorneys made a passionate argument that the state’s highest court must take on this critical issue. If it doesn’t, it will send the message that our state is willing to execute people even after overwhelming evidence of racism in their trials has come to light. The arguments concluded with Jay Ferguson’s powerful words to the justices: “If not now, when? If not you, who?”


RJA attorney Henderson Hill

For decades, North Carolina’s high courts have refused to acknowledge discrimination in jury selection, even though it has been blatant and endemic. “Weighing on this court’s shoulders is hundreds of years of history of discrimination against African American citizens … With all that history, how does this court respond?” Henderson Hill asked.


James E. Ferguson, II

“When we stand back and we take a long view of history, we’ve got to go all the way back to the days of slavery, ” civil rights leader James Ferguson, II said. “During those days, capital punishment was largely imposed upon slaves and more often than not for crimes against white people. This is the original context in which we come today.”

Ferguson said the RJA fits into our state’s history of civil rights advances followed by fierce resistance to change. Slavery was abolished, but resistance led to lynching and Jim Crow. The Supreme Court outlawed school segregation, but resistance kept schools segregated for many years after the court’s ruling. Today, the state is resisting the positive change that the Racial Justice Act sought to create and trying to execute people whose trials were poisoned by racism.

“What particularly is the role of this court, which is the leader of the judiciary in NC? It is not simply to sit and watch this change come about; it is about signaling that there is a change and taking the leadership in seeing that change come about. These are cases which present not just an opportunity for this court to lead, but we submit, they highlight and emphasize the responsibility that this court has to lead.”

RJA Attorney Cassandra Stubbs of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project

Cassandra Stubbs took on the state’s argument that evidence of racial bias in capital cases, which was exposed by the RJA, should be thrown out of court because the law was later repealed. “Never before has a state done what the state of North Carolina is attempting to do here, and never before has any court sanctioned dismissal of comparable allegations and proof of racial bias. The state’s position is, now that the Racial Justice Act has been repealed, we should forget about the evidence of discrimination and move on. But … the court cannot look away.”

It wasn’t just the attorneys who recognized the importance of these cases. Many community members turned out to support the Racial Justice Act.


NC Sen. Floyd McKissick, who helped make RJA law

Click here to listen to McKissick talk about the RJA on the State of Things


Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman, president of the NC NAACP


Jean Parks, left, an Asheville advocate for murder victim families, with CDPL executive director Gretchen Engel


The siblings of Al Harden, who is on NC death row
NC Rep. Marcia Morey
Tilmon Golphin’s uncle holding a childhood photo of Tilmon and his family


Now we wait for the court’s decision. We hope the justices will seize this opportunity to help create a system that lives up to its promise of equal justice for all.




Another innocent person is exonerated after falsely confessing. Here’s how these coerced confessions happen

This week, James Blackmon was freed after 35 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. He was convicted in Wake County, based on his own false confession — which police dragged out of him after hours of coercive interrogation. Here, CDPL attorney Elizabeth Hambourger explains how false confessions happen.

Most of us think, “I would never confess to a crime I didn’t commit.” But the sad reality is, people do it all the time

More than a quarter of DNA exonerations involve a false confession. North Carolina’s longest serving death row exonerees, Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, were sentenced to death and spent a combined 60 years in prison because police interrogators manipulated them into taking responsibility for a terrible crime they had nothing to do with. And how many more Henrys and Leons are sitting in North Carolina’s prisons? 

Many American law enforcement officers are trained to conduct interrogations in ways that recklessly encourage false confessions. Using the popular Reid Technique, interrogators first examine a suspect’s body language for clues that supposedly indicate guilt. In truth, these non-verbal cues often indicate simple nervousness. But once interrogators decide a suspect is guilty, their only goal becomes to obtain an admissible confession. They might weaken a suspect’s defenses by depriving them of sleep and food. Or lie to a suspect, confusing them with invented but convincing evidence of their own guilt. Or they might minimize the seriousness of the suspect’s supposed actions, offering morally acceptable motives, such as accident or self-defense, which the suspect might endorse in hopes of ending the interrogation. 

You’ve probably seen all this on TV police dramas, but it’s ruining the lives of real-life innocent people. Today, a three-judge panel in Wake County exonerated James Blackmon, a man with severe mental illness who was manipulated into confessing to a 1979 murder at St. Augustine’s College. The flimsiest of evidence brought police to Blackmon’s bedside at Dorothea Dix, a mental hospital where Blackmon was confined. Four years after the murder of St. Aug’s student Helena Payton, long after the case had gone cold, police received a tip that an anonymous patient at Dix had confessed to a similar-sounding crime. Though there was no patient at Dix with the name the informant gave, police somehow ended up interrogating Blackmon.

Blackmon’s mental illness was immediately apparent. He compared himself to Dracula, claimed to have telepathic powers and the ability to cause natural disasters, and reported seeing UFOs. Officers noted that he wore a cape like Superman. In addition to suffering from schizoaffective disorder, a major psychotic illness, Blackmon’s IQ has tested as low as 69. Studies have found that those with mental and cognitive disabilities are more likely to give false confessions. 

Despite his vulnerabilities and the lack of any evidence linking him to the crime, police interrogated Blackmon over and over. In fact, according to false confession expert Allison Redlich, they used Blackmon’s mental illness to manipulate him. Eventually, Blackmon agreed with the officers that “the bad James Blackmon” must have killed Payton while the “good James Blackmon” was somewhere else. But, tellingly, Blackmon did not even know basic facts of the crime, including how Payton was killed. 

Blackmon’s “confession” was the only evidence against him. Detectives never found any physical evidence or eyewitnesses linking him to Helena Payton or the crime scene. In fact, there is physical evidence pointing to another suspect, and it now seems likely that Blackmon was in New York when Payton was killed. Yet, facing the possibility of a death sentence, Blackmon pled guilty and received a life sentence, even while still proclaiming his innocence. 

Despite compelling evidence that the confession was false, Wake District Attorney Lorrin Freeman fought Blackmon’s exoneration. She could have agreed to his release, as the prosecutor did in Henry and Leon’s case. Instead, she said the burden was on him to prove his innocence, an extremely high bar that stops many innocent people from ever being released from prison. Now that Blackmon has been ruled innocent by the three-judge panel, his case casts further doubt on the reliability of confessions, the techniques law enforcement officers use to obtain them, and prosecutors’ decisions to rely on them to secure convictions and induce pleas. Today will be a hollow victory for a man who has spent 35 unjustified years in prison — unless prosecutors and police use this as an occasion to reevaluate the widespread practices that lead to wrongful convictions.

Coming up: Racial Justice Act cases will put evidence of death penalty racism before the North Carolina Supreme Court


A big day is coming up, and we need your help! Beginning one week from today, North Carolina’s highest court will hear six cases under the North Carolina Racial Justice Act. These cases go to the heart of our fight to end the racist death penalty.

They include stunning evidence of racism in death penalty trials. The court must decide whether that evidence will get its day in court, or whether it will be thrown away. The decision comes down to whether the state will be allowed to execute people whose death sentences are tainted by racism.

Just look at some of the evidence these six death row prisoners have uncovered:

  • A prosecutor referred to a defendant as “a big black bull” during closing arguments.
  • During jury selection at a black man’s trial, two white jurors suggested that he should have been lynched, yet were allowed to remain in the jury pool.
  • At another trial, the sheriff’s department cordoned off the area behind the defense table with crime scene tape, prejudicing the jury and forcing the defendant’s black family to sit in the back of the courtroom.
  • Prosecutors wrote insulting notes about black jurors. A black juror with criminal history was a “thug” while a white juror who trafficked in drugs was “a fine guy.” A black juror was a “blk wino” while a white juror with a DUI conviction was a “country boy – ok.” A Black woman was acceptable because she was “from a respectable BLK family.”
  • A statistical study showed that prosecutors in the counties where the trials took place routinely struck qualified black jurors at far higher rates than white jurors, denying African American citizens the fundamental right to wield power in the jury box and defendants the right to a jury of their peers.

We need you to:

  1. Attend the hearings and invite your friends. The NC Supreme Court will hear arguments in five of the cases on August 26, beginning at 9:30 a.m. and the sixth case on August 27, at 9:30 a.m. Watch on WRAL if you’re unable to attend in person.
  2. Follow us on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter and share our posts.
  3. Spread the word. Your voice matters. Write a letter to the editor. Talk to your friends. Think local, think statewide, think about your regional newspaper, faith group, or book club. Share this site and share your thoughts on why capital punishment must come to an end.

Go here for a Racial Justice Act quick fact sheet to help you write your letter, craft your speech, or hand out at your event.

Go here for the full story of the Racial Justice Act and why it matters in our fight to end the death penalty.




The whitening of the jury: How discrimination thrives in NC courtrooms

Black people have a constitutional right to serve on juries, just like white people. That should go without saying. But the reality is that prosecutors use all kinds of tricks and excuses to stop black citizens from sitting on juries. In this 5-minute audio documentary created by students at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, CDPL attorney Johanna Jennings explains how this form of racial discrimination persists in the courtroom. The students did a fabulous job and it’s worth a listen.

This documentary is just in time. Later this month, the NC Supreme Court will hear arguments from six death row prisoners who have uncovered evidence that people of color were illegally struck from their juries. Learn more here about the Racial Justice Act and how you can get involved.


One note: The documentary’s creators, Shaakira Raheem and Khalid Bashr, imagined some fictional questions that prosecutors might ask of black jurors like, “Do you have a birth certificate?” While these are not the actual questions prosecutors have asked black jurors in North Carolina courtrooms, some of the questions they actually have asked are equally outrageous and demeaning. For example:

  • In a Cumberland County courtroom, the prosecutor asked a black man if he had trouble reading and whether he went “straight through” school. No white jurors were asked similar questions.
  • Another Cumberland prosecutor asked a black man if he listened to Bob Marley or was familiar with the former emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie — implying that he might sympathize with black defendants who practiced Rastafarianism. Again, no white jurors were asked similar questions.
  • In Rowan County, a prosecutor asked a black woman if she would face criticism from her black friends if she voted to convict a black person of a crime.
  • In Transylvania County, a black juror was asked if her child’s father was paying child support.


Johanna Jennings, right

Creating monsters out of human beings

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Erica Washington, an attorney at CDPL

The failures of our broken criminal legal system don’t just affect the people we incarcerate and condemn to death. The injustice of our system ripples out into the world, affecting countless lives. This weekend, advocates and loved ones of incarcerated people shared their stories at the Carolina Justice Policy Center‘s Poetic Justice event. Then, spoken word artists created responsive poems. Here, please read the story shared by attorney Erica Washington, who represents people on death row at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation.

See two other death penalty attorneys tell their stories at last year’s event, along with the responsive poems: Elizabeth Hambourger and Ken Rose

Creating Locusts

By Erica Washington

The other day I came across an old episode of the popular NPR podcast, Invisibilia. The episode, which was titled “True You,” challenged the popular notion that each of us has one authentic and consistent self. Often thought of as one’s endemic personality. Curiously though, the hosts of the episode began with a story about locusts.

So Locusts have been synonymous with devastation throughout history. Swarms have devastated crops, contributed to countless disease outbreaks, and quite literally dictated patterns of human migration throughout time.

Their infamy is well known. They’ve played prominent roles in the Iliad, the Bible, the Quran. The Ancient Egyptians carved locust-like shapes into their tombs, while the Chinese, in ninth century BC, appointed a regiment – an entire police force- of anti-locust officers.

Notwithstanding this long and torturous history, farmers and scientists alike struggled to understand the seemingly sudden appearance of these villainous insects. They searched in vain for initial breeding locations and yearned for clues in the soil. Finding no answers, locusts quickly acquired an otherworldly reputation. In the Bible, for example, their sudden appearance is attributed to Pharaoh’s refusal to free the Israelites, while Assyrians wore these elaborate and detailed locust shaped charms believing in their power to ward off plagues.

In fact, it was not until 1921 that scientists finally solved this origin mystery. It turns out that the answer was hopping in front of them the entire time. Scientists realized that locusts and grasshoppers are not two distinct species as previously thought. When a period of drought is followed by rapid vegetation growth, grasshoppers pack together into tight crowds, resulting in the rubbing of their hind legs and the release of serotonin in their brains. When all of these factors coalesce, it causes significant changes in their behavior: they breed like crazy, form swarms, and strip crops.

Okay – I’m sure many of you are wondering what the origin story of locusts has to do with the criminal legal system, but hopefully by the end of my story you’ll see that, in fact, it has everything to do this system. I represent individuals on death row. Essentially, what I do is work to help people see the grasshopper, when inventing a locust feels so much easier. I do this work because I know the danger that results when we misunderstand why we are who we are.

Byron Waring was arrested and sentenced to death for the murder of Lauren Redman. Investigators said Redman was raped by Byron’s co-defendant and stabbed more than 20 times.  Byron, 19-years-old at the time, is on death row for her murder.

The blindness that contributed to centuries of agricultural devastation operates to a similar degree in my work representing men and women accused of violent crimes. For our ancestors to see the grasshopper and locust as one in the same, they had to accept the general premise that grasshoppers, under certain circumstances, could behave like locusts. Instead, unable to make this mental bridge, they invented a new fictional species. They invented the locust.

And this doesn’t just operate on death row, right. We’re constantly inventing fictional species – the welfare queen, the super predator. This allows us to fashion narratives around an us and a them – which always feels easier. In law school, I came across Section 738 of the Louisiana Revised Statutes, which makes it illegal for a Louisiana state inmate to live at a standard above the state poverty level. Again, it’s ILLEGAL for a Louisiana state inmate to live at a standard ABOVE the state poverty level. According to the Louisiana Legislature, this is because [c]itizens should not be worse off economically and living in conditions that are below those granted to inmates whose living standards are being paid for and subsidized by the hard-working and law-abiding people of the state of Louisiana.

This reasoning, espoused by the Louisiana’s statute but pervasive throughout a US conception of justice, hinges upon a strict distinction between “inmates” and “hard working, law-abiding people.” The law condemns one category to live at the line of poverty because of their deservedness in relation to the other. There is no hint of fluidity existing between these two categories, or the possibility of existing within both simultaneously. You’re either a “hard-working and law-abiding” citizen of Louisiana, or you are a criminal. You’re either a grasshopper, or you are a locust.

As in the case of Section 738, this flawed dichotomy leads us to focus all of our attention on punishing the mosimmediate agent of the harm, as opposed to the origin. Thus, we make it illegal to spend more on those most in need than that which will cover basic essentials. We disenfranchise felons and support employment and housing discrimination, telling ourselves that that’s what they deserve. We blind ourselves to our shared humanity, call them criminals, and then treat them like that is all they’ve been, all they’ll ever be, and all their fault.

Death row is the pinnacle of this flawed dichotomy. My clients are called monsters, demons, and beasts. Similar to the infamy locusts enjoyed for millennia, we attribute their behavior to inexplicable moral failings, not environmental ones. Not the physical, mental, and emotional abuse that characterized so many of their lives. Like locusts, we immortalize their crimes through movies, Netflix series, and folklore. We invoke the devil to make sense of their acts and thus find it appropriate to resort to barbaric executions to rid us of them. These are the narratives we create. Have we learned nothing from the locust?

Byron was traumatized. It was multidimensional and pervasive. His trauma was compounded by a childhood that lacked any consistent, predictable, and attuned parenting. But Byron never had the opportunity to make meaning out of his trauma. And his trauma was not unique. We know that studies estimate between 75 and 92% of those entering the juvenile justice system have experienced trauma.

What I’ve learned about trauma is that an essential part of healing is the development of a shared narrative about what happened, and if possible, why it happened. Narratives are the stories we tell to make sense of ourselves, our lives and the situations we encounter and confront. These narratives are the foundations upon which meaningful and useful remedies can be built. They’re how we avoid useless remedies such as a fleet of anti-locust officers. But Byron is on death row. How does he, in and out of a cage since age 14, soon to spend a majority of his life at central prison, how does he construct a narrative about what happened which moves beyond those that the confines of the row produce? How do I, his attorney, help him create a richer, more complete, and expansive narrative which moves beyond those that the confines of the law produce.

The narratives we create do damage. As long as we continue to tell stories that equate human beings to swarming monsters driven to destruction by some inexplicable personal moral failing, the cycle of harm will continue. As long as our narratives are fashioned around an us and a them, they will not provide the foundation for meaningful and useful remedies. We can do little to prevent harm if we fail to recognize its origin. How different history may have been if locusts were never invented, if farmers could point to grasshoppers in volatile environments, as opposed to charms around people’s necks, to explain the existence of the harm. Yet history repeats itself. We criminalize poverty instead of addressing it. We spend scraps on rehabilitation and sit by as 75 percent of prisoners are rearrested within five years of release. If we saw these men and women as the grasshoppers they are, and not the locusts we’ve created, maybe we’d find that we have more power to address the societal and environmental causes of the harm than otherwise believed. Maybe a story in which we’re implicated would cause us to care.

In our constant search for understanding, let us not blind ourselves to answers hopping right beneath our noses. Yes, these narratives will be complex, and origins of harm will not all be obvious or even able to be known, but killing what we don’t understand brings us no closer to comprehension. Byron did harm. Real, significant, heartbreaking harm. But he deserves the truth and fullness of his humanity, as did Lauren. Because we know that there is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.” We all must tell fuller, more complete, more challenging narratives. It is critical. We must make clear that when you kill a locust you always kill a grasshopper. You cannot execute one and keep the other.


Charles Finch is 10th innocent man freed after being sentenced to death in North Carolina

Charles Finch exoneration
Charles Ray Finch is wheeled out of prison after more than four decades of wrongful incarceration

Charles Ray Finch was released from prison last week, 43 years after he was sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit. His family cheered and thanked God as he emerged from the prison gates, and at Finch’s request, they all went for barbecue.

Exonerations always have a celebratory feel of justice finally being served. But don’t mistake Finch’s release for justice, or for anything other than a tragedy.

Finch spent his life in prison being degraded and brutalized, because that’s what the American prison system is designed to do. His daughter, who was 2 when he went to prison, grew up without him. Finch struggled with anger and depression, and is now 81 years old and in poor health. He was pushed out of prison in a wheelchair.

He was convicted in 1976 for the robbery and killing of a convenience store clerk. Investigators conducted an improper suspect lineup and then lied about it. They pressured witnesses to implicate Finch. Yet, no one has been or likely will be punished for their role in this miscarriage of justice.

The Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic spent nearly 19 years working for Finch’s release. Something is wrong when it takes that long to free a single innocent person.

Ten people have now been exonerated after receiving death sentences in North Carolina. All of them were poor, and most of them were black. More innocent people remain in prison, waiting year after year for the system to “work.”

This is the system that North Carolina lawmakers say you should trust to decide life and death, and to carry out executions. It’s a system that’s profoundly broken and still threatens the lives of 142 people on death row.

Let’s not ever mistake an exoneration for something to celebrate.


Posted: May 28, 2019

Henry McCollum death row exoneration
Henry McCollum was freed in 2014 after serving 30 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. His face at the moment a judge granted his freedom says it all.

On this Day: Racial Justice Act Exposes Racial Bias; Then Is Repealed

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April 20, 2019

Cumberland County Judge Gregory Weeks issued the first decision under North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act

Originally posted on EJI’s History of Racial Injustice:


On April 20, 2012, Cumberland County Judge Gregory Weeks issued the first decision under North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act, ruling that racial bias had played a role in Marcus Robinson’s 1991 trial and commuting Mr. Robinson’s death sentence to life imprisonment without parole.

Marcus Robinson, an African American man who was eighteen at the time of the crime, was sentenced to death in Cumberland County for the murder of a white person. North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act (RJA), which was narrowly adopted in 2009, authorized relief for death row defendants who could prove that race was a “significant factor” in jury selection, prosecutorial charging decisions, or the imposition of the death penalty. The RJA authorized defendants to bring claims based on evidence of discrimination at the statewide, judicial division, or district/county level.

According to a Michigan State University Law School study, during the time period Mr. Robinson was tried, North Carolina prosecutors used peremptory challenges to remove black people from capital juries more than twice as often as they did white people, and that disparity was even more pronounced in Cumberland County. At Mr. Robinson’s trial, prosecutors removed only 15% of white prospective jurors, compared to 50% of the qualified African American jurors. At an evidentiary hearing on the RJA challenge, EJI Director Bryan Stevenson testified regarding the history and broader context of racial discrimination in jury selection. Following the decision, prosecutors immediately made plans to appeal and the state legislature passed measures that weakened the RJA.

After hate-filled murders in N.C., choosing a legacy of love and light over the darkness of the death penalty

April 12, 2019

Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha
Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Those words were first spoken by Martin Luther King Jr., and many have repeated them. But it takes integrity to live by them, especially when hate has touched you in the most profound way.

Yet, that’s exactly what the families of Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha have done again and again since February 2015, when these three promising Muslim students were senselessly murdered by an angry white neighbor. The crime not only ripped a hole in their families and deprived the world of three wonderful people, it terrorized the entire Muslim community. To make it worse, since the murders, their loved ones have been targeted with hateful slurs.

Their response has been to ensure that the legacy of their beautiful children will be one of love, not hate. They opened a community center for young Muslim people in a house that Barakat once owned. They started an annual interfaith food drive in the victims’ honor. Just this week, they traveled to Washington D.C. to share their story at a Congressional hearing on hate crimes.

And then Thursday, when the Durham district attorney announced that she would not seek the death penalty against their killer, the victims’ brother, Farris Barakat, stood before a crowd of reporters and expressed the family’s support for the decision. He cited those words from Dr. King and acknowledged that nothing that happens in a courtroom can ever bring true “closure” for their loss.

The myth of the death penalty is that it has a magical power to bring closure to grieving families. But the truth is that it only stokes more hate and anger. It only creates more grieving families. It only brings more darkness into our world.

D.A. Satana Deberry explained that removing the death penalty from the picture would allow the trial – already overdue – to proceed without delay. Deberry made the right decision in this difficult case, one that should be an example for other prosecutors dealing with painful crimes. The death penalty delays and extends trials and appeals, making them more painful for all involved. And, for all that, only a tiny fraction of cases ever result in execution.

Deberry also said that bringing the case to trial quickly will allow the family to begin to heal. It’s clear they’ve already begun that difficult work. Their actions this week were yet another step toward ensuring that the memories of their loved ones will be beacons of love and hope, rather than catalysts for hatred and death.

A death penalty as random as a lightning strike

April 8, 2019

It’s been nearly 50 years since the U.S. Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional nationwide, saying there was “no meaningful basis for distinguishing the few cases in which [the death penalty] is imposed from the many cases in which it is not.” States, including North Carolina, have spent the years since writing laws that — theoretically — allow us to cleanly sort those who deserve the death penalty from those who don’t.

All these years later, it’s clear we have failed.

Just look at the two most recent death penalty verdicts in North Carolina, in the cases of Seaga Gillard and James Bradley. Both involve tragic murders that caused unimaginable pain to the families of the victims.

The first was a double homicide by a person who had previously committed kidnappings, rapes, and robberies. The second was a single killing by a person who had committed two previous homicides, one of them a child. Both were black men who had killed white women.

Both were tried in urban centers, Raleigh and Wilmington. The same expert, a former prison warden, testified in both cases that the defendants could be safely housed in prison and would suffer a life of harsh deprivation there.

If you gave a detailed summary of these cases to a random sampling of people and asked which defendant should live and which should die, there would be no rational way to decide between them. Yet, the Raleigh jury sentenced to Gillard to death in March, and the Wilmington jury deadlocked last week, leaving Bradley with a sentence of life without parole.

This disparity isn’t just irrational and indefensible, it’s unconstitutional. The Supreme Court has already established that a death penalty that’s as random as a lightning strike is not justice, it is cruelty.

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