Last week, three Wilmington police officers were fired after being caught on tape making some of the mostvile and racist statements imaginable. Unbelievably, their desire to gun down Black people in a race war was just one entry in a litany of shocking and despicable comments.
Of course, we support the Wilmington Police Department’s decision to immediately fire the officers and make their statements public. The district attorney’s office also said it isinvestigating all pending cases in which the officers played a major role and has already dismissed 89 of them. In addition, the office said it might be willing to negotiate convictions in which the officers played a part. It’s still unknown how many people these racist officers sent to prison.
These are necessary actions, but they address only cases in which these three officers were involved. Stopping there would be like finding a few cancer cells and not checking to see if the disease has spread. If we look only at these three officers, we could be missing a far broader problem.
The officers worked for the Wilmington police department for decades and seemed very comfortable voicing the most brazen racist ideas in casual conversation. It’s likely that others knew about their attitudes toward Black citizens, but as far as we know, no one reported them.
Their conversation was captured by chance when one of them accidentally activated a patrol car’s recorder. This single fragment prompts a host of questions:
How many other conversations like this took place, and who was involved?
More importantly, what were the real-life consequences of these racist attitudes? What was the racial breakdown of the people they arrested? How many people did they injure, terrorize, or kill on the job? How many wrongful convictions resulted from their work? How many complaints of excessive force have been filed against them?
Did these attitudes affect the prosecutions of the four people — three Black and one Native American — on death row from New Hanover County?
It’s time for a thorough investigation, not just of these officers but of every Wilmington police officer. Only once we see the full scope of the problem can we begin to solve it.
Police officers, even those caught on tape fantasizing about killing innocent Black people, invariably say they are “not racist.” Regardless of individual officers’ intentions, the data will show whether they are contributing to the problem of racist policing.
In 1898, Wilmington made history for being home to the worst racist massacre in North Carolina. Now, let it make history for a different reason. Let this incident be the start of a real reckoning with race and policing, one that can serve as a model for other departments.
When I was a young Black lawyer in the late 1960’s and 1970’s, there was an unwritten rule in North Carolina’s courtrooms: Though race shaped every aspect of the criminal punishment system, we were not to mention it, let alone raise objections to it. Well over a decade before the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed racial discrimination in jury selection, I objected to Black people being excluded from a jury. The judge not only angrily overruled my objection, but also hastily hauled me into his chambers to berate me for “seeing race in everything.” Although, at the time, I did not “see race in everything,” I have come to realize that perhaps I should have, because in reality, race has permeated practically everything in our criminal punishment system.
Today, we can no longer ignore the racism at the heart of this system. Videos of police officers beating people like my former client, Johnnie Rush, who was brutally beaten and falsely accused of “jaywalking” at midnight in Asheville, and of George Floyd, pinned to the ground and publicly executed in Minneapolis as he cried for his mother, saying, “I can’t breathe,” and many others, have made this painfully clear. People are marching in the streets and demanding change. Two weeks ago, amid these protests, our state Supreme Court issued a momentous decision requiring us to take an honest look at racism and the death penalty.
In its decision, the court declined to ignore evidence that Black people have been systematically denied the right to serve on capital juries. Instead, the evidence must be fully addressed, not just for the good of a few defendants, but for the sake of our courts’ integrity. As Justice Anita Earls, herself African-American, wrote, the harm of racial discrimination in criminal cases “undermines the integrity of our judicial system and extends to society as a whole.”
This victory lifts the knee off the necks of people sent to death row after racist trials, and breathes new life into the Racial Justice Act. The RJA will take its place in the history of other civil rights I have dedicated my career to advancing: integrated public schools, fair employment and the right to vote.
The RJA promised the people of North Carolina that no one would be executed in our names if race played a role in the death sentence. The RJA recognized that the death penalty is a powerful symbol of the state’s power, one that sits at the summit of our criminal punishment system.
The RJA revealed that prosecutors exclude Black citizens from death penalty juries at astonishingly disproportionate rates, and have even been trained to circumvent legal protections against racist jury selection.
It also led us to discover outrageous prosecutor notes reminiscent of those made during the trial of my Wilmington 10 clients in 1972. Prosecutors in my client Quintel Augustine’s case labeled one potential Black juror a “thug,” another a “blk wino.”
The RJA revealed more than some of our legislators wanted to see, and, in 2013, the law was repealed by a General Assembly different from the one that passed it in 2009. This new legislature – the very same one federal courts found have enacted racially discriminatory voting laws that targeted and disenfranchised African Americans “with surgical precision” – turned its back on our commitment to eradicate race discrimination in the death penalty.
In many ways, this is an old story. Throughout history, civil rights advances have met with resistance. I was attending junior high at an all-Black school in Asheville when Brown v. Board of Education was decided. As North Carolina vehemently resisted Brown, I waited September after September to attend an integrated school. It was only years later, after the federal courts accepted the argument of my firm’s client James Swann and stepped up to enforce it, that the promise of Brown was realized.
Now, the North Carolina Supreme Court has stepped up to say our state’s decades of tolerating race discrimination in death penalty cases are over. Our state must now reckon with undeniable and irrefutable evidence that Black citizens are denied the right to serve on capital juries solely because of the color of their skin.
We must finally bring the evil of race discrimination out of the shadows and into the sunlight. We must speak honestly about the ways it has distorted our capital punishment system and denied Black citizens access to the levers of power in our most serious cases. Only once we have done that can we begin to build a new structure that truly seeks justice.
James Ferguson II is a renowned North Carolina attorney and civil rights champion. He represents men and women on death row in litigation under the Racial Justice Act and is a founding partner and the president of Ferguson, Chambers and Sumter in Charlotte, established in 1964 as the first racially integrated law firm in North Carolina.
The Center for Death Penalty Litigation’s June 5 2020 Press Release:
The North Carolina Supreme Court today issued two landmark civil rights rulings on the Racial Justice Act, clearing the way for a much-needed review of racial discrimination in death penalty cases across the state.
The court decided 6-1 Friday that Rayford Burke and Andrew Ramseur, prisoners on North Carolina’s death row, were entitled to hearings where they can present evidence that prosecutors purposefully excluded African American citizens from their juries and that racism tainted their trials. The rulings also mean that death row prisoners across North Carolina who filed claims under the N.C. Racial Justice Act before its repeal in 2013 are entitled to present their evidence in court. The justices decided the case under the state constitution, so it cannot be appealed. [Read the full decisions: Ramseur and Burke.]
“This is a momentous decision that sends a clear message: Our state’s highest court will not allow North Carolina to ignore evidence that racism has infected the death penalty,” said CDPL Executive Director Gretchen M. Engel. “This was also an urgently needed decision as our state and our nation confront a long history of racism. The death penalty is the apex of a criminal legal system that has failed people of color.”
The court has not yet decided the cases of four other RJA defendants, Marcus Robinson, Quintel Augustine, Christina Walters, and Tilmon Golphin, who initially won their cases but saw them overturned on appeal.
The ruling comes just days after Chief Justice Cheri Beasley responded to protests against police violence with a candid admission that North Carolina’s courts have helped perpetuate racial disparities. “We must come together to firmly and loudly commit to the declaration that all people are created equal, and we must do more than just speak that truth,” Beasley said. “We must live it every day in our courtrooms.”
Justice Anita Earls authored the decision, and affirmed that it was about more than two individual defendants. She wrote that “the harm from racial discrimination in criminal cases is not limited to an individual defendant, but rather it undermines the integrity of our judicial system and extends to society as a whole.”
At oral arguments in August, Burke and Ramseur presented stark evidence. Both are black men convicted by all-white juries in Iredell County. Prosecutors at Burke’s trial referred to him during closing arguments as a “big black bull.” Ramseur’s trial was shadowed by widespread threats of lynching, and the judge and sheriff forced his family to sit in the back of the courtroom while the white family of the victim sat in front.
“This decision is built on basic fairness,” said Don Beskind, a Durham attorney and Duke Law professor involved in the litigation. “The evidence in these death penalty cases was stark and undeniable. The very least we can do is allow it to be heard in court. Even our most conservative U.S. Supreme Court justices, most recently Justice Kavanaugh, have said that race discrimination in jury selection is a serious long-standing problem that courts must address.”
Burke and Ramseur, like most of the people on North Carolina’s death row, first presented this evidence shortly after the N.C. legislature created the Racial Justice Act, which allowed death-sentenced people to bring forward evidence of racism in their trials. Those who could prove that race was a significant factor in their sentences would be resentenced to life in prison without parole. The law’s passage marked the first time a death penalty state allowed for a systematic review of racial bias in capital cases.
A statistical study commissioned as a result of the RJA found overwhelming evidence that, in scores of North Carolina capital cases over two decades, prosecutors illegally struck black jurors because of their race. And death row prisoners across North Carolina unearthed disturbing evidence of racism in their trials that had never before been examined by the courts.
However, in 2013, after the first four RJA defendants won their cases, a new legislature repealed the RJA. This same legislature was found by the U.S. Supreme Court to have enacted racially discriminatory voting laws. The RJA repeal legislation sought to invalidate all pending cases and prevent any court review of the evidence of bias that was uncovered. In its decision today, the Supreme Court rejected that gambit, saying that the evidence of rampant discrimination against black North Carolinians was too troubling to ignore.
Friday’s ruling was based on the precedent of State v. Keith, an 1869 case in which the N.C. Supreme Court ruled that a Confederate soldier charged with war crimes was protected by a post-Civil War amnesty law and could not be prosecuted, even though the amnesty law had since been repealed. The death row prisoners argued that if the Constitution protects Confederate war criminals, it must also protect their right to present evidence of race discrimination against black jurors even after the repeal of the Racial Justice Act.
“In light of decades, if not centuries, of mistreatment and brutalization of black citizens at the hands of America’s criminal system, today’s decision to take the death penalty off the table when there is evidence of racial bias is just one small but important step toward achieving the broad-based reform needed in North Carolina, and across the country,” said Henderson Hill, a prominent ACLU attorney who represents RJA defendants. “It’s something to celebrate, but also a reminder that we must keep working for justice.”
Go here for more detail on the Racial Justice Act.
Read Bryan Stevenson’s op-ed on the importance of the Racial Justice Act.
There have not yet been any reported cases of Coronavirus on North Carolina’s death row, but prisons have emerged as some of the worst hot spots for Covid-19. More than 25,000 cases have so far been diagnosed among U.S. prisoners and the numbers are increasing exponentially. Many of the 143 people on North Carolina’s death row are over 60. They are now in danger not just of state-sponsored execution, but of being killed by a virus from which they have nowhere to hide.
Rayford Burke is 62 years old and has lived on North Carolina’s death row since 1993. He was born in Georgia in 1958 and raised in Statesville, North Carolina. He was one of nine children born into a chaotic home with an abusive, alcoholic father. At school, he was a frequent target for bullying. He struggled in class and dropped out in the eighth grade, beginning a downward slide that ended with him receiving a death sentence for the murder of Timothy Morrison.
In prison, Rayford has taken up writing and become a keen observer of the world. He published a poem commemorating the election of Barack Obama. He is also working on his autobiography. Recently, he penned a poem celebrating the people working on the front lines of the Covid-19 pandemic.
With Rayford’s permission, we are sharing his poem with you.
First Responders, by Rayford L Burke
In the midst of a brutal, silent killer, that is raging worldwide;
Countless people has fallen ill, scores of whom has died;
It’s called the coronavirus — or covid nineteen;
A killing force, the like of which, mankind has never seen;
It has no known cure, so to treat it is hit or miss;
Its origin is said to be of snakes and bats, but I really question this;
It supposed began its reign terror, in a place called Wuhan China;
And even as it spread to the United States, Donald Trump downplayed it as minor;
And through that ignorance, it has grown into the monster that it is today;
As it wreaks havoc, and takes lives, across the USA;
But there are silver linings, in every dark cloud;
And in this case it is the heroes, of whom we’re all so proud;
They have no superpowers, and no they cannot fly;
But they’re fighting hard to save our lives, though they themselves may die;
And, in fact, many of them this deadly disease has taken;
But they’re forever in our hearts, and will never be forsaken;
They’re known as “First Responders,” resilient women and men;
Many of whom has survived the virus, to brave the frontlines again;
Putting their own families at risk, doing what they were trained to do;
Giving their all, despite their fears, to see this crisis through;
They’re doctors, nurses, firemen, cops, and the helpers of people in need;
Preachers, teachers, even sanitary workers, they’re all a very rare breed;
And though all glory be to God, we praise our heroes in spades;
None of us could ever thank you enough, for the sacrifices that you’ve made.
Dedicated to all first responders in the United States and around the world
Last week, the state announced that an unnamed prisoner had become the first person to die from a Covid-19 outbreak at North Carolina Women’s Prison. The person was Faye Brown, and her death is the end of a 45-year story that demonstrates the cruelty and excess of our punishment system.
In a humane system, this 67-year-old woman who reformed herself in every way possible would have gotten a second chance at life in the free world. In that world, she would have had at least the possibility of protecting herself from a deadly virus. But in our system, which prides itself on unending punishment at any cost, a life sentence turned into a death sentence.
Brown earned a cosmetology degree in prison and, for many years, held a full time job at a cosmetology school. Because of her clean disciplinary record, she was in minimum custody and earned the privilege of work release. She was beloved by people outside and inside prison, becoming like a mother to many incarcerated women. “She was everybody’s confidant and friend,” one woman told the News & Observer.
She spent two-thirds of her life paying for a crime she committed 1975. At 22 years old, Faye Brown was one of three people involved in a bank robbery in Martin County. No one was injured in the robbery, but shortly afterward, a highway patrolman stopped their car. In a split second, one of the men in the car shot and killed Trooper Guy Thomas Davis Jr.
There was no evidence that Brown planned or participated in the trooper’s killing, but she was convicted of first-degree murder under North Carolina’s felony murder rule. The rule says that if you’re involved in a crime that leads to murder, you’re as culpable as the person who pulls the trigger. It’s an unforgiving rule that has sent several people who did not kill to North Carolina’s death row. Some of them remain there today.
Brown’s conviction happened during an era when racial disparities in the criminal punishment system were even more glaring than they are today, so the fact that she and her co-defendants were black, and the slain trooper was white, almost surely contributed to the lack of mercy she was shown.
In North Carolina at that time, a first-degree murder conviction came with an automatic death sentence. But a few years later, the U.S. Supreme Court declared North Carolina’s mandatory death penalty unconstitutional, and Brown’s sentence was changed from death to life. Today, life sentences come with no possibility of parole. But at that time, a life sentence meant a maximum of 80 years and could be reduced with good behavior credits.
Brown had good behavior credits in spades, and in 2009, a judge ordered her release. However, the higher courts blocked her release after a political outcry, and created new law saying that good behavior didn’t apply to life sentences, dooming not just Brown but many other prisoners too.
Then-governor Beverly Perdue was outraged at the idea that Brown might leave prison. “This is not how government and the courts are supposed to work for the people of North Carolina,” Perdue said. “This is wrong. I’ve been in politics a long time, and I have never been this disgusted with the system in my life.”
In fact, Brown’s release is exactly how the system is supposed to work, if it’s about justice instead of punishment for punishment’s sake. It should ensure public safety by incarcerating dangerous people and helping them reform. Once they can demonstrate that they are no longer a threat to society, they should be able to return to productive lives on the outside.
Instead, Brown was told that one youthful mistake was the end for her. She would never get another shot at freedom, no matter how hard she worked to change her life.
When the pandemic began creeping into prisons, advocates at the ACLU and other organizations began raising alarms, asking for the release of older and medically vulnerable people who were no longer dangerous. If anyone fit that category, it was Faye Brown.
But our system chose to keep her in prison despite the risks. We as a society chose to let her die rather than show even the smallest bit of mercy.
In these days of COVID, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by bad news. But we shouldn’t forget to celebrate good news, and we’ve had a little of that in the past week. On Friday, the North Carolina Supreme Courtissued a decision that sends a clear message: North Carolina’s courts must finally begin to take the exclusion of black jurors from criminal trials seriously.
The decision says that, when a person on trial suggests that a prosecutor struck a juror because of the juror’s race, the courts must fully investigate. They must consider the history of disproportionate jury strikes in the county, and compare the treatment of white people and people of color in the jury pool to see if it’s been equal.
If these sound like no brainers, that’s because they are. This is the least the courts can do to begin to end the decades-long practice of denying people of color a voice in the criminal punishment system.
But the reality has been that, despite exhaustive studies proving that jury discrimination is a statewide problem, judges across North Carolina have not acknowledged the problem and have often dismissed allegations of jury discrimination out of hand. In this 6-1 decision, the Supreme Court has signaled that era might be coming to a long-overdue end.
COVID-19 is teaching society many lessons. One of them is that public safety doesn’t always mean locking people up for as much time as possible. Right now, public safety means letting people go home.
With the number of infected prisoners and guards growing quickly, reducing incarcerated populations protects us all — because once the virus spreads inside a prison, it doesn’t stay there. Prisons are like small cities. Many people go in and out every day: staff, defense lawyers, law enforcement, doctors, and many more. If a virus is in a prison, it threatens the free world too. No matter how much we try to deny the humanity of prisoners, we are all connected.
Public officials are being forced to take action.
First, many county jails began to reduce their populations. This was the obvious place to start, since jails hold people who have not yet been convicted — and many are in jail not because they present grave threats to society, but because they can’t afford to pay bail.
Now, they’ve started taking bolder steps. Gov. Roy Cooper announced plans to release about 500 people who are at high risk for the virus, including pregnant women and people who are sick and elderly. It’s a shame it took a deadly virus for our society to see that people in these categories shouldn’t be kept in prison.
Perhaps most notable, Durham District Attorney Satana Deberry agreed to the early release of nine prisoners and announced her intention to consider other motions for early release. Though they don’t use it frequently, district attorneys have the power to agree to settlements and early release in cases where a defendant has been convicted, as long as a judge approves the deal.
Considering the immense power that district attorneys wield to put people behind bars, it’s only fair for them to also use their power to reexamine sentences when circumstances have changed. Occasionally, they even do this in death penalty cases.
In the past few years, district attorneys have agreed to remove a handfulofpeople from death row, letting them instead serve sentences of life without parole. The settlements helped right wrongs including race discrimination, a death sentence for a man with severe mental illness, and disparate sentences for people involved in the same crime.
It’s often easier for district attorneys to let convictions stand than to reopen cases, but it’s not always what’s best for society. We hope more DAs will show the courage Deberry has displayed in her willingness to reconsider old decisions in light of new circumstances.
As the coronavirus has shown us so clearly, it’s not always safest to push for the most severe punishment.
In the midst of a Coronavirus pandemic, society is forced to decide which work is essential. Across the United States, that question is now being applied to countless enterprises — including the death penalty. Is it essential for states to kill people?
Eighteen executions are scheduled between now and the end of the year in Texas, Missouri, Ohio and Tennessee. Countless death penalty trials are also planned across the country, including in North Carolina.
The courts are likely to call most or all of them off because, right now, if our society wants to kill, we must risk harming innocent people too. That has always been true, but the Coronavirus allows us to see and feel that risk more concretely.
Texas has already called off two executions. In mid-March, John Hummel and Tracy Beatty had their executions delayed indefinitely. At the time, visitors had already been barred from the state’s prisons and the nation was at the beginning of massive community spread. In those conditions, the idea of bringing together a group of people in a confined space to carry out a lethal injection was rightly deemed absurd
What’s unbelievable is that, in both cases, prosecutors opposed the delay of the executions. One told the court there was “no evidence” that Coronavirus would affect the state’s ability to carry out an execution, a statement that reveals just how deeply irrational the death penalty is.
Had the executions been carried out, prison staff and witnesses would have been forced to pack themselves together in tiny rooms. The families of the people being executed might have been denied a final visit, or been forced to choose between saying goodbye to their loved ones or possibly contracting a deadly virus. All to kill a person who no longer presents any threat to society.
In any situation, some people will cling to their old ideas. But in this exceptional time when the death penalty has come to a shuddering halt, it’s possible that many people will gain a new perspective.
Maybe when we emerge from this time in our cocoons, society will be transformed. Maybe we will understand that the law of nature is far more powerful than the law of people, and that the safety the death penalty promises is an illusion. Maybe we will finally see that humans don’t need to do the work of killing.
As we fight a global pandemic, it feels more absurd than ever before to devote the resources of any state to trying to kill people.
This week, some much-needed good news came out of Colorado. Gov. Jared Polis signed a bill ending the death penalty and commuting the sentences of the state’s three remaining death row prisoners. His signature made Colorado the tenth state since 2007 to decide that the death penalty isn’t necessary to maintain public safety and does more to perpetuate injustice than to ensure justice.
Right now, with Covid-19 bearing down, most states and local governments are focusing on short-term efforts to cut jail populations and release some of the scores of people who are behind bars only because they can’t afford to pay bail. But Colorado has taken a step at the other end of the spectrum, joining a national movement away from the death penalty.
As public opinion turns against the death penalty, almost of half of U.S. states no longer have the death penalty on the books. It’s past time for North Carolina to join them in abandoning this flawed and ineffective policy.
In North Carolina, a 2019 poll found that when voters were offered a broad range of alternatives to the death penalty, only about a quarter of them favored the death penalty. And nearly three-quarters said it’s likely an innocent person has been executed in North Carolina. In the past few decades, ten people sentenced to death in North Carolina have been exonerated. Ten innocent people on death row is a good enough reason to end the death penalty on its own.
Like North Carolina, Colorado’s death penalty was racially skewed. In a state where just 4 percent of the population is African American, all three men on its death row were black. In North Carolina, more than 140 people are living under sentences of death. Sixty percent are people of color, compared with only about 30 percent of the North Carolina population.
Also like North Carolina, Colorado had become deeply uneasy about the death penalty and long ago ceased executions. The people on its death row were sitting year after year, decade after decade, waiting for an execution that was unlikely to be carried out.
Yet, even when no one’s being executed and very few people are being sentenced to death, the death penalty has an outsize effect on a state’s criminal punishment system. It adds millions in yearly costs and skews the whole system toward harsher penalties. And it allows the state to threaten vulnerable suspects with death to assure their compliance, a pressure tactic that sometimes persuades even innocent people to confess.
As we fight a global pandemic, it feels more absurd than ever before to devote the resources of any state to trying to kill people. We sincerely hope that, once this health crisis is over, North Carolina will follow Colorado’s lead and turn to endeavors that support life rather than death.
The five boys were 14 and 15 years old when they were taken to the Winston-Salem police station. The cops wanted them to confess to the murder of Nathaniel Jones, a 61-year-old man who’d been beaten, robbed and left tied up on his carport, then died of a heart attack. The boys said they knew nothing about the crime.
The terrified boys didn’t know that children aren’t eligible for the death penalty. Believing it was their only way out of the interrogation room, all five broke down and confessed. A sixth child, a girl, was also interrogated by nearly a dozen officers until she agreed to falsely testify that she witnessed the boys committing the crime. The boys were convicted and sent to prison for what one judge called a “relentless, remorseless, conscienceless” crime.
You might have missed this story amid the chaos of Coronavirus, but last week, the North Carolina Innocence Commission found enough evidence to order a hearing on whether all five were wrongly convicted of Jones’ murder in 2002. A three-judge panel will now decide whether to exonerate them.
It’s a case with eerie echoes of theCentral Park Five. A psychologist called the similarities“astonishing.” However, in this case, the boys got even harsher penalties for their coerced confessions. Three of them — Christopher Bryant, Jermal Tolliver and Dorrell Brayboy — got 14 years for second-degree murder. But two brothers, Nathaniel Cauthen and Rayshawn Banner, got life without parole and are still behind bars.
The story that the Winston-Salem Journal wrote about the brothers’ sentencing in 2004 is heartbreaking to read now. Nathaniel and Rayshawn sat silently through the trial. The jury deliberated just one hour before convicting them of first-degree murder. The judge called them remorseless. And then, just before their sentence was pronounced, Nathaniel asked to speak.
“I (already) spent two years of my life in jail for something I didn’t do,” Cauthen cried, flailing his arms, his voice rising with desperation. “I can’t tell you who killed this man. It’s not my fault these people put me in a room and made me say things I didn’t do.”
With tears streaming down his face, he pointed toward prosecutors and a police detective, saying he spent his life “running from these people” who tried to blame him for things he didn’t do. He turned around and spoke to Jones’ family directly.
“I’m sorry that this man lost his life, but I can’t tell you who killed this man,” he said.
This story is a reminder that the North Carolina death penalty is often used to coerce confessions, and that it is frequently wielded against innocent people in cases with flimsy evidence. (Read CDPL’s report about this widespread abuse of the death penalty.)
But it’s especially egregious to discover that police are willing to use the death penalty to intimidate, coerce, and wrongly convict children.
During the Innocence Commission hearing, a detective admitted that he described the process of lethal injection to two of the boys — but, he claimed it was “not as a threat.” Only in the delusional, upside-down world of our criminal punishment system could a person make the claim that asking a terrified child to imagine his own execution is not a threat.
The death penalty is most certainly a threat, to our human decency most of all.
For nearly two decades, district attorneys in North Carolina have had discretion to decide which cases are serious enough to warrant the death penalty. In a state where hundreds of murders are committed each year, only a handful of people face capital trials. As public sentiment turns against executions, most N.C. counties haven’t put anyone on trial for the death penalty in more than a decade.
That’s what makes Wake DA Lorrin Freeman’s decisions about the death penalty so egregious. Freeman represents one of the state’s most forward-looking urban counties, yet she pursues the death penalty with the abandon of a 1990s prosecutor ignorant of pesky “modern” concepts like mental illness and racism.
Most of the world has banned the death penalty for people with severe mental illness. In North Carolina, it’s illegal to put a person on trial who is so mentally ill that he can’t understand the proceedings, and Freeman doesn’t dispute that Gregory is acutely psychotic. Freeman’s solution? Force Gregory to take psychiatric medications so she can get her shot at sending him to death row.
In the year before the crime, Gregory was committed to a mental hospital eight times. Doctors have diagnosed him with psychosis and schizoid effective disorder, among other things. Most DAs consider severe mental illness, which impairs a person’s ability to control their actions, understand their crime, and participate in their defense, a reason not to pursue the death penalty. In theory at least, the death penalty is meant to be reserved for the worst crimes and the most culpable defendants, and someone with severe mental illness is clearly less culpable. But, apparently, not to Freeman.
It seems she has little sympathy for people with mental illness, even when they’re innocent. James Blackmon was sentenced to life in prison in 1988, after he confessed to murder while delusional. Police interviewed Blackmon over and over while he was in a mental hospital and wearing a Superman cape. Eventually, they extracted a garbled confession. In addition to claiming responsibility for a four-year-old murder, Blackmon told police he could cause earthquakes and use telepathic powers to control other people.
Blackmon didn’t know the most important details of the crime and, the evidence now shows, was almost certainly in New York at the time. A fingerprint found at the scene matched another man with a long criminal record. And when an eye witness failed to identify Blackmon in a photo lineup, police hid the report of the lineup.
Despite the overwhelming evidence of his innocence, Freeman argued last year that Blackmon should remain in prison because he did not have DNA evidence. Thankfully, the three-judge panel hearing his case disagreed with Freeman and freed Blackmon after more than thirty-five years of wrongful imprisonment. If the case were tried today, Freeman may well have sought the death penalty against Blackmon.
Since Freeman took office in 2014, Wake has sought the death penalty at trial more than any other North Carolina county. And in almost every case, the defendant has been a black man. Freeman would have voters believe she has no choice but to pursue the death penalty, but it’s simply not true. She’s making a conscious choice to put people with severe mental illness on trial for their lives, to fight to keep innocent people in prison, and to disproportionately seek the death penalty against people of color. The citizens of Wake County deserve better.
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.
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.