I’m still learning what freedom really means for the wrongfully convicted


By Kristin Collins

I’ve seen a lot of exonerations. They happen all the time. People — almost always Black men — released after years or decades in prison, sometimes on death row. Revelations about falsified evidence, coerced confessions, cops and prosecutors who lied to secure convictions. And then, media coverage of a joyous homecoming.

But it wasn’t until I saw Ronnie Long’s exoneration — after 44 years in prison for a rape he did not commit — that I began to truly understand how difficult it is to reclaim your freedom after wrongful imprisonment.

When I saw Ronnie Long openly express his heartbreak and fury, I realized how I’d expected exonerees to smile and be thankful for what they were given, rather than demanding acknowledgment of the life that was stolen from them.

When I saw Ronnie Long smoke a cigarette in front of a reporter’s video camera, blow out the smoke and say, “That’s freedom,” I realized how we pressure exonerees to appear perfect. In our society, the wrongfully convicted have to prove themselves worthy of freedom, just as Black people have to prove that they are well behaved enough not to be killed by police.

Kristin Collins
Kristin Collins

Long made me realize that I, too, had absorbed the idea that exonerees must be model citizens to earn our sympathy. As part of my job, I write and talk about death row exonerees all the time. But I never talk about the occasional ones who, after their release, turn to drugs or get arrested again.

Considering that most exonerees are sent home from prison with nothing — no counseling or other services, no apology for the trauma they endured, and barely enough money for bus fare — it’s a wonder this doesn’t happen more often. They are only granted compensation like Long’s if they receive a rare pardon of innocence from the governor. (The recent $75 million verdict for death row exonerees Henry McCollum and Leon Brown was the rarest of exceptions, not the rule.)

It felt uncomfortable to see Long’s raw honesty and grief. Maybe that’s why a reporter, rather than acknowledging the enormity of the trauma our “justice” system inflicted on Long, instead branded him as angry and “intent on settling old scores” — all because he dared to say that 44 years of his life were worth more than the $750,000 the state granted him.

Watching Long, I thought about Darryl Hunt, who after his exoneration in 2004, joined the movement to end the N.C. death penalty. He was tried capitally and spent 19 years wrongfully imprisoned. Up until his death in 2016, Darryl did everything we advocates asked of him, and he did it with a smile.

Over and over, Darryl calmly told his story and said he forgave the people who fought to keep him in prison long after his innocence was clear. I believe that Darryl thought forgiveness was the path to freedom, but I also wonder how much pain and anger he had to swallow to show us that serene, smiling face as he relived his trauma. Did he think that was what we expected of him? Did our unexamined assumptions contribute to his suicide?

I admit that, until recently, Ronnie Long faded into the crowd for me. Yet another exoneree to add to the list. But then I heard him speak in that stunning video.

I heard him tell the story of his parents, who died with his name on their lips, without seeing him freed. I watched him look into the camera and say, with his eyes full of tears, “750 thousand dollars … That’s bullshit. You take my life, then you gon’ tell me what that’s worth?”

Ronnie Long is unapologetic about his desire for more from the state of North Carolina than what we’ve given him. He’s asking for money, but he’s also taking back his power. 

He wants — and deserves — the power to determine what his life is worth. He wants the power to tell his own story, to put words to all he has lost, and to make clear who took it from him.

I represented an innocent man on death row. Here’s why NC must end the death penalty

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Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were recently awarded more than $75 million for the law enforcement misconduct that led to their wrongful convictions in 1983. This historic settlement underscores what a massive injustice was done to these two men, who were sent to death row as teenagers and imprisoned for three decades, all for a crime they had nothing to do with. Here, McCollum’s former attorney, Vernetta Alston, remembers the day of their exoneration. Now a state legislator, Alston recently sponsored a bill to abolish the North Carolina death penalty. Originally posted on NC Policy Watch.
Henry McCollum & Vernetta Alston
Henry McCollum shaking hands with Vernetta Alston moments after his exoneration. Photo © Jenny Warburg


By Vernetta Alston

In September 2014, I was sitting with Henry McCollum at the moment a judge ordered his release from death row for a crime he did not commit. Many folks in the courtroom clapped in celebration. Others embraced out of relief. It had been 30 years since Henry and his brother Leon Brown – two innocent and intellectually disabled children – had been convicted and sentenced to death in Robeson County, North Carolina. A case that had captured the country’s attention had come to an end for the two men, who had unflinchingly claimed their innocence for all those years.

The press, lawyers, and advocates rushed to announce the court’s decision. The courthouse buzzed as they explained the 30-years of injustice – undisclosed evidence, new DNA results, the rush to judgment that failed to give closure to the family of the victim, the wrongful incarceration – endured by Henry and his little brother, Leon.

But Henry, the innocent man at the center of it all, remained solemn. After the judge ordered his release, he was led, still shackled, to a small, dim holding area of the same courthouse that took his freedom to begin with. I knelt near him for a few minutes. He was silent and didn’t make eye contact. He was overwhelmed.

Considering all Henry had been through – the manipulation by law enforcement that led to his false confession, being labeled the “worst of the worst” by United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the severe depression he experienced in prison, suicide attempts that resulted from the unimaginable toll of watching friends be executed, and the 30 years of innocence claims that were effectively ignored until that day – he had every right to be overwhelmed.

Henry and Leon’s case is reason enough to repeal the death penalty in North Carolina.

We have a death penalty system that let the false, unrecorded, and coerced confession of a disabled teenager serve as the basis of a death sentence. Henry’s case also showed us the lengths prosecutors will go to in pursuit of the death penalty, like withholding evidence including the recantation of the witness who originally led police to Henry, and neglecting to do fingerprint testing that would have revealed the identity of the real perpetrator.

Thirty years of strong legal claims and personal protests were not enough to get Henry off death row. He was exonerated by DNA evidence. Few criminal cases have DNA evidence at all. Henry was lucky and luck cannot be a safety valve to protect innocent people from an ineffective system.

But it isn’t just the innocent who suffer under a broken death penalty system. There are countless people on North Carolina’s death row who live under the weight of their actions and the sorrowful reality that their poverty, substance abuse disorders, mental illnesses, personal trauma histories, or race made them easy targets for death penalty prosecution in a system that, until recently, lacked important checks on investigative tactics, state discretion, or the defendant’s right to due process.

More than 90% of our death row was convicted in the 1990s, before confessions were required to be recorded. In about 80% of cases, defendant’s did not have the right to see their files before trial. Nationwide, at least 20% of death row inmates are mentally ill and many suffered from substance use disorders.

In light of this and the reality that Henry’s is not the only death penalty case in North Carolina with faulty evidence, police coercion, or prosecutorial misconduct, we should stop subjecting people to the ultimate punishment.

Whether guilty or innocent, killing people does not bring any more justice into the world – only more sorrow and violence.

In the fall of 2014 at the Robeson County Courthouse, I stared at a free man consumed by three decades of despair, injustice, and oppression caused by the death penalty and its actors. It was a historic day and one of the saddest days of my life. We must repeal the death penalty.

Vernetta Alston was elected to the North Carolina House of Representatives in 2020. She worked as a capital defense attorney at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation for five years. She previously served on the Durham City Council.

Wake County wanted the death penalty for a man with severe mental illness; only a pandemic stopped it

A bipartisan group of North Carolina legislators introduced a bill this week to prohibit the death penalty for people with severe mental illness. Here’s a recent case that illustrates why this law is so needed.

Wake County prosecutors knew that Kendrick Gregory had severe mental illness when they decided to try him capitally. In the eight months before the crime, he’d been hospitalized at least 20 times for mental illness. He checked himself into emergency rooms over and over, reporting symptoms of psychosis. On some occasions, he said he heard voices telling him to hurt himself.

In the five years that they sought to try him for the death penalty, his mental illness became only more apparent. In jail, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and twice found incompetent to stand trial. He was often unkempt and was unable to help his attorneys prepare his defense.

Instead of accepting that Mr. Gregory was simply too mentally ill to be tried capitally, Wake County prosecutors asked the judge to forcibly medicate him — an attempt to “restore” him to competency so they could ask a jury to kill him.

This kind of case is exactly the reason that Ohio recently made history by becoming the first state to ban the death penalty for people with severe mental illness, a law that will protect vulnerable people and save millions a year on costly capital trials. The Constitution says the death penalty is to be reserved for the most culpable defendants and the most calculated murders, but too often it’s used instead against vulnerable and marginalized people like Mr. Gregory, who are poor, Black, and suffering from diminished mental capacity.

It is both immoral and unconstitutional to execute people who cannot understand or regulate their actions. For exactly those reasons, federal and state laws bar the death penalty for people with intellectual disabilities and children. There is no rational reason for executing people who committed crimes while in the grips of psychosis or whose mental illness prevents them from understanding the consequences of their actions.

Yet, in North Carolina, this remains an accepted practice. Guy LeGrande, who has been on death row since 1996, was allowed to represent himself at his murder trial while so delusional that he believed he was God and that Oprah and other celebrities were sending him messages through the television. His illness was on full display as he told the jury “you will worship me and proclaim me lord and master.” They promptly sentenced him to death, and he remains on death row today.

If not for a global pandemic, Mr. Gregory might have joined Mr. LeGrande on death row. The pandemic delayed Mr. Gregory’s trial set for April of 2020. And on May 4, 2021, facing courtroom backlogs and a mountain of evidence of Mr. Gregory’s mental illness, Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman finally agreed not to seek the death penalty in his case. However, Wake prosecutors are still arguing to try him for a maximum penalty of life without parole, despite clear evidence that he is too mentally ill to stand trial and should be hospitalized.

Winning this small victory took his attorneys more than five years of relentless advocacy. 

Records showed that the last time Mr. Gregory went to the emergency room, he said he had a gun at home and planned to kill himself. Doctors asked a court to involuntarily commit him. But when they failed to find an open spot in a psychiatric hospital, they changed their diagnosis and allowed him to go home. A few weeks later, he was arrested for the murder of a Raleigh pawn shop owner, along with a series of other crimes on the same day.

North Carolina should end the death penalty altogether. But at the very least, we should pass laws ensuring that people with severe mental illness will not be sentenced to death. 

Watch a short film about mental illness and the death penalty:

Chauvin trial shows that justice requires diverse, inclusive juries

By Elizabeth Hambourger

George Floyd Memorial
Remembering George Floyd at the scene of his murder in Minneapolis. Photo by Vasanth Rajkumar.

No one should have been on the edge of their seat about the verdict in Derek Chauvin’s trial. He was caught on video kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes as Floyd begged for his life. But this is America, where police are almost never held accountable, so we held our breath and prepared for Chauvin to be acquitted. 

But in this rare case, a jury of six white, four Black and two multiracial  people provided a measure of justice, finding Chauvin guilty of murder. Surely, the jury’s diverse makeup helped it reach this much-needed verdict.

Yet, it’s exactly this kind of diversity that prosecutors often work to avoid. They strike Black citizens from juries at far higher rates than whites. Then, when they’re accused of violating the law prohibiting racist jury strikes, they offer the flimsiest possible defenses. And no matter how implausible their excuses are, they almost always get away with it. 

Especially in North Carolina, where the courts have never overturned a case because of racist jury selection, prosecutors have been allowed to break the law with impunity.

But the N.C. Supreme Court may finally be ready to change that. Last week, the state’s highest court agreed to take a closer look at the cases of two men on North Carolina’s death row, Russell Tucker and Christopher Bell, both of whom have compelling evidence that prosecutors unfairly removed Black citizens from their juries.

Tucker and Bell’s cases present our state’s highest court with the clearest evidence yet of the ways prosecutors win death sentences by racially skewing North Carolina juries, and their cases offer the best opportunity to finally do something about it. 

In Christopher Bell’s case, the prosecutor removed most of the Black jurors in the pool. Then, in closing argument, he compared Bell and his co-defendants, all young Black men, to “predators of the African plain” as he urged the mostly white Sampson County jury to sentence them to death. 

When asked to explain his removal of Black citizens from Bell’s jury, the prosecutor defended himself by claiming that he removed one woman not because she was Black but because she was female. Gender discrimination in jury selection is just as unlawful as race discrimination. That this prosecutor so openly traded one unconstitutional reason for another reflects the impunity fostered by years of indifference from our courts. What’s more, despite the prosecutor’s confession of discrimination, the lower court found nothing wrong with his actions.

Russell Tucker’s case is equally clear. When asked to explain their removal of every single Black citizen from Tucker’s jury, Forsyth County prosecutors parroted reasons from a cheat sheet that had been distributed at a training seminar — a cheat sheet specifically designed to help prosecutors disguise their strikes of Black jurors. They claimed they struck Black men and women for subjective and derogatory reasons like “bad” body language or not making eye contact. They struck one Black woman because she rented her home and wasn’t registered to vote, saying she lacked a “stake in the community” even though she’d lived her whole life and raised her family there. The same prosecutor accepted white jurors who rented homes or weren’t registered to vote.

This evidence must also be placed against the backdrop of statewide studies showing that North Carolina prosecutors remove Black jurors at twice the rate of whites. Nearly half the people on North Carolina’s death row were sentenced to death by all-white jury or a jury with only one person of color. In a state as diverse as North Carolina, that’s inexcusable.

Especially when people’s lives are on the line, it’s critical that courts ensure fair trials untainted by racism. Recently, North Carolina appellate courts have started to take the problem more seriously.

In the Chauvin case, the jury brought healing by acknowledging reality: Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd in the middle of the day, on a city street, while a crowd of people watched. 

It’s time for the N.C. Supreme Court to also acknowledge reality: Prosecutors discriminate against Black jurors in open court, and they’ve been allowed to get away with weak excuses for far too long.

Elizabeth Hambourger is a capital defense attorney at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation.

Virginia just abolished its deeply racist death penalty; North Carolina must follow suit

This piece is reposted from N.C. Policy Watch.

By Elizabeth Hambourger

“This is, as we know, a historic day for Virginia. We are the first Southern state to abolish capital punishment, but we will not be the last.”

— Jayne Barnard, Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, March 24, 2021

CDPL Attorney Elizabeth Hambourger
CDPL Attorney Elizabeth Hambourger

This week, Virginia became the first southern state to abolish the death penalty. At the signing ceremony, Gov. Ralph Northam and other speakers repeatedly referenced the racist history of the Virginia death penalty as a prime reason for its abolition.

It is not a coincidence that Virginia, the birthplace of American slavery and the capital of the Confederacy, has been at the forefront of the American death penalty. Over the course of its bloodthirsty history, Virginia executed nearly 1400 people, more than any other state in the union — and most of those executed were Black.

Rev. Lakeisha Cook of the Virginia Interfaith Center described how “early death penalty statutes in the Commonwealth reserved the death penalty almost exclusively for Black people… As extrajudicial lynchings became commonplace in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the state responded by carrying out more state-sanctioned executions in order to placate and deter white mobs who threatened to take justice into their own hands… Between 1901 and 1981, nearly six times more Black people were executed in Virginia than white people.” [Watch a video of her remarks.]

North Carolina’s death penalty is no less rooted in our own history of slavery and lynching, and it continues to bear the hallmarks of white supremacy. Our state’s modern death penalty is disproportionately used against people of color. Those accused of killing white victims are more likely to get death sentences. Black jurors are systematically excluded from capital juries. And of the twelve innocent people who’ve been exonerated after receiving death sentences in North Carolina, just one is white. The death penalty’s history is explored in depth in the Center for Death Penalty Litigation’s recent project Racist Roots: Origins of North Carolina’s Death Penalty.

The historic signing ceremony was held outside the prison where Virginia carried out its last 101 executions. As someone who has been fighting the death penalty for more than 20 years, I watched through tears, but they were not only tears of joy.

Just four years ago, I stood on the same spot while yet another Black man, my client Ricky Gray, was put to death in that well-used death chamber. We didn’t realize then that his execution would be one of the last. As grateful as I am that the slaughter has ended, I’m painfully aware that abolition came too late for many.

Meanwhile, across the state line, 138 people remain on North Carolina’s death row, and too many prosecutors persist in their efforts to increase that number. Some of the people who await their executions are my clients.

They are people who have made grave mistakes but who have worked hard for redemption. One just finished writing his memoir. Another is caring for a chronically ill fellow prisoner. Many grew up in poverty and dysfunction that was the legacy of racism, lynching and Jim Crow. All have families who love them. Their executions would not make our society safer; they would only cause more suffering and grief.

But Virginia’s reversal on the death penalty brings hope. As Gov. Northam said, punishment and justice are not the same thing. Rev. Cook called for the transformation of our current punitive system into “one that is rooted in fairness, accountability, and redemption.”

Accountability isn’t just for those we label criminals; it applies to all of us, and it begins with acknowledging our history. As Virginia demonstrates, when we properly acknowledge the death penalty’s racist roots — together with its ever-mounting toll — we cannot allow it to continue.

Elizabeth Hambourger is a capital defense attorney at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham. She represents several men on North Carolina’s death row.

Newly discovered innocence cases show how old problems still haunt the N.C. death penalty

This piece by Kristin Collins of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation was published on March 10, 2021 by N.C. Policy Watch.

Last month, two new men were added to the list of innocent people who’ve been sentenced to death in North Carolina. 

Anthony Carey was sentenced to execution for a murder he took no part in, based entirely on the testimony of a 16-year-old who had made a deal with the police. The teen said that while he robbed and murdered a gas station attendant, Carey was a passenger in a getaway car parked blocks away. In exchange for that testimony, the prosecutor allowed the teen to plead guilty to second-degree murder while Carey went to death row.

John Thomas Alford was sent to death row for a shooting in an auto parts store, even though four people testified he’d been playing basketball with them at the time of the crime — and even the co-defendant who carried out the murder said Alford wasn’t involved.

The district attorney withheld that last piece of evidence, saying he didn’t want to “confuse the jury” by showing them evidence of Alford’s innocence. Instead, he focused on a suspect lineup where four witnesses picked Alford. However, police polluted the lineup by showing witnesses Alford’s photo beforehand, a tactic that all but assured they would select him.

Both men were tried in Charlotte in the 1970s and had their convictions overturned after spending about a year on death row. Their exonerations had been lost to time until the national Death Penalty Information Center discovered them in the course of researching a new report. Nationwide, DPIC uncovered eleven new death row exonerations, bringing the total to 185 — one for every eight executions that have been carried out in the United States. 

With the addition of these cases, North Carolina has sentenced 12 innocent men to death since 1973. They spent a total of 157 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. 

John Thomas Alford’s mother was interviewed for the March 3, 1976 edition of the Charlotte News, after he won a new trial. After being sentenced to death at his first trial, Alford was acquitted at his second trial.

Both Carey and Alford are Black men who were accused of killing white people — once again bearing out the truth that Black men are more likely to be wrongly convicted , especially in cases with white victims. Of North Carolina’s twelve exonerees, ten are Black, one is Latino, and only one is white. Seven of the cases involved white victims.

Though these exonerations happened close to 50 years ago, many of the systemic flaws they exposed play a role in current death row cases. 

For instance, several people on North Carolina’s death row were implicated by unreliable witnesses or co-defendants who were seeking deals in their own cases. Others were convicted with the help of tainted eyewitness identifications, which are a frequent cause of wrongful convictions. And under North Carolina’s felony murder rule, people can still be sentenced to death for killings they did not personally carry out or for which they were not even present. 

News stories from the time also noted that Alford had an all-white jury, which discounted the testimony of four Black alibi witnesses. “To hear those four tell it, all they did was play basketball,” one juror told the Charlotte News. “They didn’t work. How could you believe somebody who doesn’t work?”

The exclusion of Black jurors remains a pressing problem across North Carolina. Recently, the N.C. Supreme Court ruled that almost everyone on death row should be allowed to present evidence of systemic discrimination in jury selection under the Racial Justice Act.

These cases are also a reminder that every wrongful conviction is like a bomb going off, affecting not just the person who receives the death sentence but their family and community.

Carey’s brother Albert was sentenced to death alongside him, as the alleged driver of the getaway car, and he was never exonerated. Instead, he was resentenced to life and spent three decades in prison because of a 16-year-old’s allegation.

According to interviews in the Charlotte News, Alford’s mother took a second mortgage on her home to pay for his defense. His stepfather had to work a second job at night to pay it off. And hundreds of community members contributed to his legal defense fund for a second trial. His mother said she asked herself during the ordeal, “Why is this happening to us? Are we being punished? What’s the use of trying to live a good, decent life?”

A system as error-prone as the death penalty breeds distrust that can last for generations and creates harm that can never be healed, no matter how many people we exonerate.

We must remove racist symbols from North Carolina’s courthouses

Raleigh Confederate Monument
The Confederate monument at the State Capitol in Raleigh was removed in 2020.

This week, a diverse group of criminal justice leaders announced a campaign to rid North Carolina’s courthouses of Confederate symbols. At least 39 counties have these racist monuments on grounds that should be dedicated to impartial justice.

The N.C. Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the Criminal Justice System says it will create a complete database of all Confederate symbols on courthouse grounds; sponsor events to educate the public on the history of these monuments, most of which were erected in the Jim Crow era as symbols of white supremacy; develop a legislative and legal strategy for monument removal; and serve as a resource for communities seeking to remove them.

At NCCADP, we wholeheartedly support this work and see it as closely related to our efforts to abolish the death penalty. Confederate monuments are the clearest symbols of the racist roots that created our modern criminal punishment system and spawned its cruelest punishment, the death penalty.

As our partner organization CDPL points out, many of the 137 people on death row were sentenced to death in the shadows of Confederate monuments, sometimes by all-white juries. [Read one such story here.] Every day that these monuments stand, they continue to harm our communities.

We also should acknowledge that, in the past, NCCADP might have stayed silent on this issue. We might have thought it wasn’t directly related to the death penalty and let others raise their voices instead.

But, as NCCADP’s new Executive Director Noel Nickle said in this article on Waging Nonviolence, we now want to be more intentional in acknowledging that racism and the death penalty are inextricably linked. We also realize that we cannot create a successful movement to end the death penalty in isolation. We must support all movements for justice, knowing their success is bound up with our own.

This past summer, Noel went before the city council in her hometown of Asheville to support the removal of a downtown monument to Zebulon Vance, a Confederate colonel and three-term governor of North Carolina who enslaved people and was known for his abhorrent racist rhetoric. Noel is Vance’s direct descendant, and she asked on behalf of her family that the city remove the monument.

She told the council, “I deeply desire to transform my family’s legacy for future generations. This monument represents what I hope to dismantle.”

Confederate monuments on courthouse lawns represent what NCCADP hopes to dismantle: A criminal and carceral system built to preserve the racial order. A system that dehumanizes and marginalizes people, traumatizes families, and devalues life. 

Three more federal executions planned this week will bring no justice, only cruelty and heartbreak

Lisa Montgomery as a kindergartener. She is set to be executed tomorrow by the federal government.

This week, the federal government plans to execute three people: Lisa Montgomery, Cory Johnson and Dustin Higgs. If all three executions are carried out, that will make 13 people executed by the Trump administration since July — all against the backdrop of a raging pandemic that has infected even the people facing execution and their attorneys and, now, the recent mob violence that killed five people at the Capitol. 

If there has ever been a time for our nation to see that more killing is not the path to justice, this is it.

Lisa Montgomery suffered childhood abuse so severe and unimaginable that she developed psychosis. Cory Johnson is intellectually disabled. Dustin Higgs received death for murders that he did not carry out, while the person who pulled the trigger received a lesser sentence.

The stories of these individuals sound familiar because they are much like the stories of people on death row in North Carolina. The people our government seeks to execute are, almost always, people who live on society’s margins. People scarred by poverty, violence, and childhood trauma. 

Their death sentences are not the result of a careful process, but arbitrary and disproportionate — depending more on the quality of their lawyers or the place where they were prosecuted than on the facts of their crimes.

They are also, very clearly, tainted by the same racism that recently paraded itself through the halls of the nation’s Capitol. White people make up more than three-quarters of the U.S. population, yet less than half of those sentenced to die, both at the federal level and in North Carolina. If these three executions are carried out, the current administration will have executed 13 people, eight of whom — 60 percent — are people of color. 

Joe Biden has promised to end the federal death penalty. And before 2020, no president had carried out an execution since 2003. People can make their own assumptions about what’s behind this administration’s frenzied killing spree in its waning days.

But it’s clear that our nation faces many dangers right now, and these three people are not among them. Their deaths will bring no healing, only more cruelty and heartbreak.

Don’t miss this new project on the Racist Roots of the NC death penalty

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October 15, 2020

Racist Roots quote

This month, the Center for Death Penalty Litigation launched an ambitious new online project, Racist Roots: Origins of North Carolina’s Death Penalty

The project includes essays, poetry, artwork, commentary, and historical documents that place the state’s death penalty in the context of 400 years of history and expose its deep entanglement with slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, and modern systemic racism. The death penalty, the project contends, is another Confederate monument that North Carolina must tear down.

“The death penalty began as a way to enforce a racist social order, and as it evolved through the generations, our state never addressed the original sin that lay at its root,” said CDPL Executive Director Gretchen Engel. “Today, the death penalty is the apex of a racist criminal punishment system that cages hundreds of thousands of people and declares human lives, particularly those of Black people, expendable. The clear message of this project is: Any meaningful conversation about race and criminal justice in North Carolina must include the death penalty.”

Racist Roots shows that in every incarnation, from slavery to post-Civil War Reconstruction, to Jim Crow, and to the modern criminal punishment system, those wielding the death penalty have imposed it disproportionately on Black people; valued the lives of white victims above all others; and excluded citizens of color from power by systematically excluding them from capital juries. So, while the precise influence of racism in the death penalty has changed from era to era, its essential nature has not.

Read Henderson Hill’s essential introduction to the project here, and then head over to RacistRoots.org to explore the rest.

Raleigh Confederate Monument  

The Death Penalty is Another Confederate Monument We Must Tear Down

By Henderson Hill

Right now, our nation is in a moment of reckoning with our criminal punishment system. We are finally seeing clearly what should have been obvious long ago: The system has its knee on the necks of Black people.

In North Carolina, as we begin a long-overdue conversation about the future of police and prisons, we must confront the punishment that sits at the top of that system, condoning all its other cruelties — the death penalty.

When citizens have acclimated to the state strapping a person to a gurney and killing them in front of an audience, it becomes harder to shock them. The death penalty teaches a cruel and inhumane lesson: As long as we brand people criminals, we can kill them.

Meanwhile, there is absolutely no evidence that capital punishment enhances public safety or prevents crime. Instead, it creates more violence and pain, more parentless children and grieving families. I’ve seen this trauma up close as an attorney representing people on death row.

The death penalty’s history is inseparable from our history of slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration.

It is time for us to examine not just the daily cruelties of today’s death penalty, but to see its true nature. And to understand that, we must understand its history.

This report lays bare what too many people, lulled by the myth of a post-racial society, have allowed themselves to forget. The death penalty’s history is inseparable from our history of slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration. Even as the number of executions and death sentences declines, it remains a powerful symbol of white supremacy.

When we open our eyes to the history of capital punishment, the conclusion becomes inescapable. The death penalty is just one more Confederate monument that we must tear down.


Three More RJA Cases Decided: NC Supreme Court Removes Ms Walters, Mr Augustine, and Mr Golphin from Death Row

Tilmon Golphin, held by his uncle, Mr Willie McCray in 2019.


On Friday, September 25th, 2020, Christina Walters, Quintel Augustine, and Tilmon Golphin were resentenced from death to life without parole. The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that they had been unconstitutionally returned to death row after receiving life sentences under the state’s Racial Justice Act. The decisions in their cases are based on the state constitution and cannot be appealed.

“Hallelujah!” cried Sylvia Golphin, Tilmon’s mother, upon hearing the news. Her brother, Willie McCray added, “Justice is not always perfect, and it’s often slow. We see people fall through the cracks; we know it happens–just look at Breonna Taylor. But today, for my family, this time justice came through.”

This decision marked the final rulings in a series by the state Supreme Court, which affirmed that rights granted under the 2009 Racial Justice Act had been wrongly taken away from death-sentenced people who have brought forward evidence of racial discrimination in their trials and sentences.

LeRoi Brashears, a friend of Tilmon’s, said, “In these days, this is a badly-needed reaffirming symbol of the possibilities of extracting justice out of our system. I’m grateful for the Court saw fit to make it happen in this case.”



From CDPL’s Press Release:

“We are grateful to the court for upholding the law that says a person cannot be sentenced to death twice for the same crime,” said CDPL Senior Staff Attorney David Weiss. “Our clients proved that race was a major factor in their death sentences. Their evidence has never been disputed, and they never should have been sent back to death row.”

The North Carolina legislature passed the Racial Justice Act in 2009. It led to a statewide study showing that, in capital trials, prosecutors dismissed Black citizens at 2.5 times the rate they excluded whites. This disparity was driven entirely by race and could not be attributed to any other factor, such as death penalty views. It also found that crimes with white victims were twice as likely to be punished with death.

Walters, Augustine, and Golphin — along with Marcus Robinson, who was resentenced to life in August — were the only four death row prisoners to have Racial Justice Act hearings before the law was repealed in 2013. All four won their cases, using the study to show a pattern of race discrimination in North Carolina capital cases. The defendants also unearthed prosecutors’ notes referring to jurors with denigrating terms like “blk wino,” and training materials showing that their prosecutors had been instructed on how to invent “race-neutral” reasons to justify their strikes of Black jurors.

In 2012, Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks resentenced all four to life without parole after finding a “wealth of evidence” that systemic exclusion of Black jurors had tainted their death sentences. However, after the repeal of the Racial Justice Act, the N.C. Supreme Court overturned Weeks’ ruling on procedural grounds, saying the hearings should have been held separately rather than jointly and that prosecutors should have had more time to prepare their case, even though the trial court had already given the state two continuances. The court ordered new RJA hearings for the four defendants, and in a legally questionable move, the N.C. Department of Public Safety quickly returned them to death row.

Now, the Supreme Court has ruled that the reinstatement of their death sentences was unconstitutional and has restored life sentences for all four.

In a separate ruling in June, the court also said that all North Carolina death row prisoners who filed RJA claims before the law’s 2013 repeal are 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 courts have not yet decided how those cases will proceed.

“The court has again affirmed what we already knew,” Weiss said. “The Racial Justice Act was a necessary law that revealed an epidemic of racism in death penalty cases. We cannot sweep that evidence under the rug. And we certainly cannot execute people who’ve proven that racism played a part in their sentences.”

A portion of the post contains a press release by the Center for Death Penalty Litigation (CDPL). CDPL is a non-profit law firm based in Durham, N.C., that represents people on death row and is part of the team litigating North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act.

Go here for more detail on the Racial Justice Act.

Supreme Court ruling shows why NC must end its racist death penalty

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Vernetta Alston, Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr., and author Ken Rose talk during a break in the RJA hearings at the NC Supreme Court in September 2019

Last week, the North Carolina Supreme Court broke new ground for a state court in the South. Not only did the justices nullify a death sentence poisoned by racism, they also spoke directly to the death penalty’s “egregious legacy” of racially discriminatory application: “[t]he same racially oppressive beliefs that fueled segregation manifested themselves through public lynchings, the disproportionate application of the death penalty against African-American defendants, and the exclusion of African-Americans from juries.”

The support for the court’s conclusion that the death penalty is a racial justice issue is overwhelming and the remedy apparent: Ending the death penalty.

A 2017 study by UNC Professor Frank Baumgartner in North Carolina found that .7 percent of homicides of white people resulted in executions, compared to .12 percent of homicides of Black people. This is only the latest of numerous scholarly reports, demonstrating pervasive racial discrimination in seeking or imposing the death penalty, and the racially biased exclusion of jurors from deciding who lives and who dies in death penalty cases. The state does not execute people convicted of the worst of the worst crimes. Overwhelmingly, the state executes people who are poor and accused of killing white people, and it achieves that outcome in part by seeking to exclude Black persons from serving on juries.

For example, in 2003 North Carolina executed Robbie Lyons for an unpremeditated murder following a botched robbery of Stephen Stafford, the white owner of a small Winston-Salem store. Lyons was a severely mentally ill 21-year-old Black man with no prior history of homicide, who had suffered violent beatings and exposure to drugs and alcohol beginning at age four. Robbie Lyons would not have been executed if he were white and the victim Black.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of racial bias in the death penalty, the Supreme Court found in the 1987 case McCleskey v. Kemp that statistical evidence is not enough to challenge the constitutionality of the death penalty, though it invited state legislatures to take on this task. McCleskey is harshly criticized by many, including N.Y.U. Law Professor Anthony G. Amsterdam, as “the Dred Scott decision of our time.” The author of the opinion, Justice Powell, later said the decision was the biggest regret of his tenure on the Court.

That decision led North Carolina to pass in 2009 the Racial Justice Act, the first law to permit the use of state-wide statistics to demonstrate that race was a significant factor in seeking or imposing the death penalty. Republicans repealed the N.C. Racial Justice Act after an election filled with racist depictions, including of my client Henry McCollum who has since been found innocent.

Eleven years after the passage of the Racial Justice Act, the North Carolina courts are doing their part by acknowledging the plague of racism infesting our criminal justice system, and by starting to root out those injustices on a case-by-case basis. Now is the time for the Governor and General Assembly to respond with equal vigor by commuting the sentences of persons currently on death row to life imprisonment and ending the death penalty. This is no pipe dream; ten other states have abolished their death penalties in the last 15 years.

Last month, Governor Cooper announced a task force on racial equity in criminal justice, which will “work to eliminate” racial inequities in the justice system. In the announcement, Attorney General Josh Stein said, “I look forward to working alongside them to find real and meaningful solutions to improve the way Black people are treated in North Carolina. Now it’s time to get to work.”

In eliminating the death penalty, an extreme punishment inextricably linked to lynching and the perpetuation of white supremacy, our leaders have the opportunity to leave one clear legacy of racial justice.


Author Ken Rose is the former director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, an attorney who has represented multiple clients sentenced to Death Row and a longtime advocate for abolition of the death penalty. He lives in Durham.

This article was originally posted on NC Policy Watch on August 8, 2020.

N.C. Supreme Court: Racial Justice Act is key to ending death penalty racism

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The mothers of Marcus Robinson and Quintel Augustine speaking to attorneys at the North Carolina Supreme Court in 2019

The North Carolina Supreme Court has issued a historic call for the state to address and rise above its history of excluding Black citizens from jury service and allowing racial bias to seep into the prosecution of capital cases. In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Cheri Beasley wrote, “equal protection to all must be given—not merely promised” and pointed to an “egregious legacy of the racially discriminatory application” of the death penalty. (Read the full decision here.)


The 4-3 ruling came in the case of Marcus Robinson, the first death row prisoner to be resentenced to life without parole under North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act. The court found that Robinson had been unconstitutionally returned to death row, despite unrefuted proof that Black jurors were intentionally denied the right to serve on his jury. The court ruled that Robinson cannot be executed, but may serve a life sentence instead, because of the “overwhelming evidence” of racial bias presented in his case.


“Robinson’s claims under the RJA do not negate or diminish his guilt or the impact of his crimes on the victim’s family, the victim’s friends, and the community,” Chief Justice Cheri Beasley wrote. “Rather, the Act ensured that even those who commit the most serious offenses are entitled to a trial and sentencing free from racial discrimination.”


“This is one of the most important decisions I’ve ever seen from our state Supreme Court,” said CDPL Executive Director Gretchen Engel. “It seems that Justice Beasley and her colleagues intend to make good on the promise that no person should be executed if race was a factor in their death sentence. This is a critical issue of racial justice, both for people on death row and for African Americans seeking to participate in our democracy. It’s heartening to see the court recognizing that fact, in all its difficulty and complexity, and taking bold action.”


The decision marked the second time in three months that the state Supreme Court forcefully rejected a legislative effort to void the Racial Justice Act and bury the evidence of racially-biased death sentences that the law revealed. In June, the court ruled that all death row prisoners who filed claims under the Racial Justice Act are entitled to hearings, even though the law was repealed in 2013.


Friday’s decision, in addition to finding clear evidence of discrimination against African American jurors in Robinson’s case, recognized the connection between modern jury selection practices and the centuries-long history of racism in America. It chronicled “the many ways African Americans have struggled to participate in our democratic processes,” beginning with post-Civil War laws explicitly barring Black people from jury service and then morphing into Jim Crow-era poll taxes and literacy tests. It described the modern peremptory strike as the newest tactic used to remove qualified Black citizens from juries.


The court made a strong case for the Racial Justice Act’s necessity, saying it was passed in response to the failure of North Carolina courts to enforce federal standards barring racially motivated jury strikes. “The goal of this historic legislation was simple: to abolish racial discrimination from capital sentencing. That is, to ensure that no person in this state is put to death because of the color of their skin,” Beasley wrote.


The Racial Justice Act legal team

The North Carolina legislature passed the Racial Justice Act in 2009. It led to a statewide study showing that, in capital trials, prosecutors dismissed Black citizens at 2.5 times the rate they excluded whites. This disparity was driven entirely by race and could not be attributed to any other factor, such as death penalty views.


Robinson, along with Quintel Augustine, Tilmon Golphin, and Christina Walters, were the only four death row prisoners to have Racial Justice Act hearings before the law was repealed in 2013. All four defendants won their cases, using the study to show a pattern of discrimination that denied them the right to a jury of their peers. In addition to the study, the defendants unearthed prosecutors’ notes referring to jurors with denigrating terms like “blk wino,” and training materials showing that their prosecutors had been instructed on how to invent “race-neutral” reasons to justify their strikes of Black jurors.


In 2012, Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Gregory A. Weeks resentenced all four to life without parole after finding a “wealth of evidence” that systemic exclusion of Black jurors had tainted their death sentences. Friday’s decision recognized that Weeks’ findings were “meticulously detailed.” However, over the next few years, though their evidence of racial bias was never disproven, they were again placed at risk of execution.


After the repeal of the Racial Justice Act, the N.C. Supreme Court overturned Weeks’ ruling on procedural grounds, saying the hearings should have been held separately rather than jointly and that prosecutors should have had more time to prepare their case, even though the trial court had already given the state two continuances. The court ordered new RJA hearings for the four defendants, and in a legally questionable move, the N.C. Department of Public Safety quickly returned them to death row.


Then, when they requested the hearings the Supreme Court had ordered, a Superior Court judge refused to hold them, saying that the defendants were no longer entitled to hearings because the law had been repealed. All four appealed to the state Supreme Court, but the court has not yet decided the cases of Augustine, Golphin and Walters.


“Our clients ended up in the ultimate Catch-22,” Engel said. “They had clear proof of racism that they presented under a valid law. Then, the state Supreme Court asked them to present the evidence again. When they tried to do that, the state said, ‘Sorry, too late. The law no longer exists.’ Today, this Supreme Court, under the strong leadership of Chief Justice Beasley, said that North Carolina must stop playing games with justice and start looking at the big picture, which clearly shows that our death penalty is racist.”


Advocates said they believe the evidence of racial bias in capital prosecutions, uncovered as a result of the Racial Justice Act, raises serious questions about the legitimacy of North Carolina’s death penalty.


“It’s unthinkable that we could amass a mountain of evidence showing that race plays a role in the North Carolina death penalty and then just ignore it and return to executing people,” said Henderson Hill, an ACLU attorney who is part of the Racial Justice Act litigation. “Today, the high court declared that it’s unacceptable for North Carolina to keep its head in the sand, and we are grateful. It is time for everyone in North Carolina to ask themselves, after decades of racially-biased prosecutions, whether the state should still have the right to carry out executions.”

Originally posted as a press release by the Center for Death Penalty Litigation (CDPL). CDPL is a non-profit law firm based in Durham, N.C., that represents people on death row and is part of the team litigating North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act.

Go here for more detail on the Racial Justice Act.

Read Bryan Stevenson’s op-ed on the importance of the Racial Justice Act.

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