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.
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.
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.
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.
In today’s world, it’s easy to think politicians on both sides of the aisle care only about their own power and reelection chances. But every once in a while, we see an act of moral leadership that renews our faith in government. This week, it happened in California.
Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that he would dismantle the death chamber and grant the state’s nearly 750 death row inmates a reprieve. They will remain incarcerated but will no longer live under the threat of execution. It was a stunning move in a state with the nation’s largest death row.
What’s more, Newsom didn’t just couch his decision in the safe terms of how much money it would save the state —billions — or how hopelessly backlogged the state’s death penalty machine was. Since 1976, California has sentenced hundreds of people to death yet carried out 13 executions. He also made a strong moral argument against the death penalty.
Newsom noted proven racial disparities in the criminal justice system, the way the death penalty preys on poor people, and the national epidemic of wrongful convictions. And then he described a conversation with Bryan Stevenson. “He said it’s not a question, the death penalty, of whether people deserve to die for their heinous acts. The question really is, do we have the right to kill? That’s a deep and existential question. I know people think it’s an eye for an eye, but if you rape, we don’t rape. And I think, if someone kills, we don’t kill. We’re better than that.”
Newsom also laid out the unthinkable scenario that might have ensued without his action. “What we’re being asked to do in California is to consider executing more people than any state in modern American history,” he said. “To line people up to be executed — premeditated, state sponsored executions — one a week for over 14 years. That’s a choice we can make, or we can make, I think, a more enlightened choice, to advance justice in a different way.”
North Carolina faces a very similar situation. Like California, we have not executed anyone since 2006. We have one of the country’s largest death rows, made up mostly of people tried decades ago. Nine innocent people have been exonerated after being sentenced to die, and more claims of innocence are under investigation.
Our state has spent millions on the death penalty and executed just a few dozen people, offering the ultimate punishment to only a tiny handful of victims’ families. And if North Carolina were to resume executions, at the rate of one a week, it would take us nearly three years to kill all the people on death row — a macabre spectacle.
North Carolina, too, should make the enlightened choice to put an official end to the death penalty. There are better ways to do justice and bring comfort to the families of victims. And there are better ways to show that killing is wrong.
In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional to sentence children to death. (Better late than never!) The decision cited research showing that human brains continue to grow and aren’t fully formed until people are in their early 20s, and that our character and ability to make reasoned decisions is still developing.
Given that, it’s unbelievable that North Carolina, and 28 other states, continue to impose a punishment almost as harsh on kids — life with no possibility of parole. Think about that: Still today, a 13-year-old can be declared “irredeemable” and sent to prison with no chance of ever getting out.
Since the sentence went on the books in 1994, 94 kids 13 to 17 have been sentenced to life without parole in North Carolina — and 86 of them were children of color. Apparently, this is a punishment we reserve almost exclusively for non-white kids. Many of them were not even the main culprit in the crime for which they were convicted. And as with the people on N.C.’s death row, the vast majority of them were sentenced in the 1990s, when we had very different ideas about justice.
According to a new report from Duke Law School, which delves into how juvenile life without parole is used in North Carolina, the cases are as riddled with unfairness and flimsy evidence as our death row cases. Consider this example:
In 1995, at age 16, Derrick McRae was accused of murder in Richmond County. McRae is black. There was no physical evidence linking him to the crime and eyewitness accounts were mixed. At his first trial, the jury hung with eight jurors arguing for acquittal. Before his second trial, the prosecutor offered him a deal: If he pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter, he would be out of prison in 13 months. McRae refused, claiming innocence.
At his second trial in 1998, the evidence against him came largely from a co-defendant and a jailhouse informant. In his closing argument, the prosecutor commented on McRae’s “uncaring, unfeeling” demeanor in court. The jury didn’t know that McRae was schizophrenic and, before the trial, had been denied his medication. They convicted him of first-degree murder, which led to an automatic sentence of life without parole.
Fortunately, the Supreme Court stepped in again. In 2012, the court ruled that children could not receive automatic life without parole sentences. Thus, children serving life without parole in N.C. were entitled to new hearings to determine whether they were permanently irredeemable or should receive new sentences with the possibility of parole.
In 2017, McCrae had his hearing and is now eligible for parole in 2021.
But seven years after the Supreme Court ruling, 46 kids — almost half — still haven’t had their hearings. And life without parole remains a possible sentence for kids as young as 13.
Just like the death penalty, sentencing kids to die in prison is barbaric and excessive. As Bryan Stevenson says so eloquently:
Life without parole is supposed to be a judgment that says this person is beyond hope, beyond redemption, beyond rehabilitation, has been given opportunities to change and hasn’t changed… You can never say that about a child.
For generations, North Carolina politicians of both parties have had one thing in common: Almost all of them staunchly supported the death penalty. That’s largely because they believed their voters supported it.
They’ve continued to operate on that belief, even without much data to back it up. But late last month, Public Policy Polling conducted a statewide poll to answer the question: What do North Carolinians think about the death penalty today?
The results should make state politicians question their death penalty orthodoxy. After more than a decade without executions and a wave of exonerations of innocent people on death row, voters no longer trust the system to decide who should live and die.
Some of the striking results of the survey of 501 voters across the state, 47 percent of whom voted for Trump and 45 percent of whom voted for Clinton:
70 percent say it’s likely that an innocent person has been executed in North Carolina. This belief alone is enough reason to end the death penalty!
57 percent say it’s likely that racial bias influences who is sentenced to death. Pervasive racism is another good reason to end it!
When given a choice between the death penalty and a maximum sentence of life without parole, more than 50 percent of voters favor life without parole, while only 44 percent lean toward keeping the death penalty.
When offered a larger range of alternatives, including requirements that offenders work and pay restitution to victims’ families, only 25 percent favored the death penalty.
58 percent prefer to eliminate the death penalty if the millions of dollars spent on it each year were redirected to investigating and prosecuting unsolved rapes and murders.
A clear majority would support actions by the governor or by their local district attorneys to stop executions and death penalty trials.
No wonder N.C. juries have sentenced only a single person to death since 2014. Our citizens clearly see how unjust and wasteful the death penalty is. It’s time for our leaders to listen to their constituents.
A man who was sentenced to death in North Carolina may soon be exonerated after spending more than 40 years in prison.
Last week, a federal court said Charles Ray Finch — who was sentenced to death in 1976, but later resentenced to life because of changes to state death penalty laws — is entitled to a new hearing to determine whether he is innocent. The court also discounted nearly every piece of evidence used to convict Finch of murder.
The verdict was the result of work by Duke University’s Innocence Clinic, which has been investigating Finch’s case since 2001. Finch has claimed innocence since the day of his arrest, but other courts had refused to consider the evidence he offered. He is now 80 years old. Finch’s lawyers are asking Attorney General Josh Stein to agree to his release, since the court ruling said no rational jury would convict him based on the evidence available today.
According to the opinion, one witness who testified against Finch has since recanted, saying that police and prosecutors pressured him into identifying Finch as the killer. All of the physical evidence that police said connected Finch to the crime has been discredited.
Most importantly, the testimony of the state’s main eyewitness was proven unreliable. Lester Jones was working in a convenience store alongside Richard Holloman when three men robbed the store and shot Holloman to death. Jones was unable to describe the shooter’s face, but told police the man was wearing a three-quarter length jacket. That night, during three separate lineups, Finch was the only suspect wearing a three-quarter length jacket. Such highly suggestive lineups have been proven to lead to false identifications and are now illegal.
Other people who were convicted based on questionable eyewitness identifications remain on death row in North Carolina. For example, Elrico Fowler was sentenced to death in 1997 based largely on the testimony of an eyewitness. Despite having seen only one suspect, the witness picked several other men in photographic lineups — and when he was first shown Fowler in a photo lineup, he failed to identify him. He only picked Fowler in a second photo lineup administered several days after the crime, after the same photo of Fowler had appeared in the newspaper listing him as a suspect. And the witness became certain of his identification only after investigators told him that he picked the right person.
Sometimes, the fight to end the death penalty can feel like a long, slow slog. But we’ve got good news. We are winning!
In 2018, for the second year in a row, juries didn’t hand down any new death sentences. Two years in a row of no new death sentences? That’s never happened before. We shouldn’t underestimate how significant that is in a state that, in the 1990s, sent dozens of people to death row every year.
For the twelfth year in a row, no executions were carried out in 2018.
Even our state’s district attorneys have begun to flag in their enthusiasm for death sentences. Only three counties (out of 100!) held death penalty trials this year. In Buncombe County, District Attorney Todd Williams is going a step further. He has begun reevaluating decades-old death sentences — and when he finds that the defendant got an unfair trial, he agrees to stop seeking execution and allow the person to serve life without parole instead.
A November 2018 case in Buncombe County perfectly illustrated the problems with N.C.’s decades-old death sentences. By today’s laws and standards of justice, most of the people on death row simply shouldn’t be there. Buncombe DA Todd Williams recognized that when he agreed that James Morgan, who has been on death row since 1999, never got the fair trial to which the Constitution entitles him and likely wouldn’t be sentenced to death if he were retried today. Williams remedied the injustice by agreeing that Morgan should be resentenced to life in prison without parole. Here, one of Morgan’s defense attorneys reflects on what this action means for her client and for justice.
By Elizabeth Hambourger
November 14, 2018
On Friday, Jimmy Morgan was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole. And for this he was grateful. The prospect of a lifetime behind bars might not sound like anything to be thankful for, but Jimmy has spent the past 19 years on North Carolina’s death row.
In the years I’ve represented Jimmy, he has often expressed his regret for the crime that resulted in his death sentence. Jimmy was using crack one night in Asheville with Patrina King. The two got into an argument over money, and Jimmy lost his temper and killed Patrina, stabbing her multiple times with a broken beer bottle. With Jimmy’s acceptance of responsibility for this terrible act came knowledge that he would never again live in the free world.
Legally, there was a strong argument that even though Jimmy was guilty, he should never have been sentenced to death. The jury that sentenced him didn’t know that this impulsive crime was in part the product of several traumatic brain injuries, which began in childhood. Jimmy fell out of a moving car at the age of nine. Following the accident, family members noticed a distinct change in his behavior and personality. Later in life, he was hit in the head with a baseball bat and, in a separate incident, a wall-mounted television fell on him from above.
The lawyers who represented Jimmy at trial were given neither the time nor the resources to investigate the impact of Jimmy’s injuries. When a neuropsychologist finally tested Jimmy, years after he’d been sentenced to death, the results showed that he ranks in the bottom 1st or 2nd percentile in several critical areas of brain functioning. The doctor concluded that Jimmy’s brain damage left him unable to make reasoned decisions or control his impulses on the night he killed Patrina King.
It’s apparent when you meet Jimmy that his brain damage has lasted a lifetime. Although he is now 63 years old, Jimmy’s defining feature is his childlike exuberance, expressed with large physical movements and animated facial expressions. In the middle of a conversation, he’ll suddenly break into a tune from The Music Man.
He often speaks and writes in spontaneous rhyme. One of the first times I met Jimmy, he made up an on-the-spot rap about my wristwatch. He plays an energetic air guitar, composes and performs his own hymns for death row worship services, keeps a running tally of the thousands of three-point shots he’s made on the prison basketball court, and likes to entertain people by flipping his cap from his foot to the top of his head.
Jimmy lacks a “filter,” for good and for bad. The dual faces of this impulsiveness are a tragic illustration of the truism that our greatest strengths are often our greatest weaknesses.
Over the many years Jimmy’s case lingered in the courts, other lawyers and I argued that the jury should have been told about Jimmy’s brain damage, and if they’d known, they wouldn’t have given him a death sentence. But multiple courts rejected our argument.
Then last year, the U.S. Supreme Court decided a new case that reaffirmed a criminal defendant’s right to a neuropsychological evaluation. When my co-counsel Mark Kleinschmidt and I brought that case to the attention of Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams, he agreed that it entitled Jimmy to a new sentencing hearing. What’s more, Williams realized that if Jimmy were retried now, he would never receive a death sentence. No Buncombe jury has sentenced anyone to death since 2000.
Williams agreed that the proper sentence for Jimmy is life without possibility of parole. This means Jimmy will never get out of prison, but the appeals in his case will finally come to an end. He will move into general population, where he might be able to work a prison job and enjoy a few small privileges – like contact visits that will allow him to finally hold his granddaughter.
At the resentencing hearing Friday, Patrina King’s family spoke to Jimmy and the court. They spoke eloquently of their continuing anger, and of their attempts to forgive even in the face of so much pain.
Jimmy asked me to read his statement of apology:
Thank you for this opportunity to apologize to the King Family. I am very sorry for my actions that took the life of Patrina. I know many people loved her. Every day, I think about it. I do a lot of praying. I understand that I will be spending the rest of my life in prison. I can see the degree of hurt I have caused the King Family and my own family. I love my family and I appreciate their love and support. I’m sorry.
And then, still shackled, he was led out of the Asheville courtroom, not by any means a free man, but free of the death sentence that had been hanging over his head for nearly twenty years.
Last week, Washington became the 20th state to end the death penalty after its Supreme Court ruled that capital punishment is arbitrary and racially biased. If those are reasons to outlaw the death penalty, then it is surely time for the North Carolina death penalty to go.
How much more proof can you ask for that the death penalty is racist and arbitrary in our state?
More than 63 percent of North Carolina’s death 141 row prisoners are people of color, even though they make up less than 30 percent of the state population. More than two dozen of the people on death row were sentenced to die by all-white juries.
A comprehensive statistical study found that defendants who kill white victims are more likely to get the death penalty, and that across the state, African American citizens are systematically, and illegally, excluded from capital juries.
If that’s not enough, let’s talk about arbitrariness.
A new report from the Center for Death Penalty Litigation shows that most of the people on N.C. death row are only there because they had the bad luck to be tried under outdated laws, before there were basic legal protections to ensure fairness at their trials. Had they been tried under modern laws, most wouldn’t be on death row today.
Watch the story of Nathan Bowie, who because there was no indigent defense agency at the time of his trial, ended up with an alcoholic lawyer who came to court drunk.
Today, after the enactment of many reforms, only a handful of people each year face capital trials. Yet, the selection of that handful remains arbitrary. It has more to do with the practices of the local DA, the county where the crime occurred, and the defendant’s willingness to accept a plea bargain than it does with the severity of the crime.
Across the country, people have become unwilling to ignore the obviousness unfairness that infects the death penalty. Last week, Washington admitted the truth about its death penalty. It’s time for North Carolina to do the same.
After 12 years without an execution, many people believe the North Carolina death penalty is dead. That might be true — if it weren’t for the more than 140 people still on death row.
Our state continues to spend millions every year fighting to execute those men and women, even though the vast majority of them were sentenced decades ago under outdated laws and standards of justice. If they had been tried in modern times, most would never have received the death penalty.
Watch the story of one of N.C.’s longest serving death row inmates:
This week, a new report from the Center for Death Penalty Litigation exposes just how unfair many of those sentences are by today’s standards. About three-quarters of N.C.’s death row inmates were tried in the 1990s, before a slate of reforms were enacted to protect defendants’ basic rights and prevent wrongful convictions.
92% (131) were tried before a 2008 package of reforms intended to prevent false confessions and mistaken eyewitness identifications, which have been leading causes of wrongful convictions across the country. The new laws require interrogations and confessions to be recorded in homicide cases and set strict guidelines for eyewitness line-up procedures.
84% (119) were tried before a law granting defendants the right to see all the evidence in the prosecutor’s file — including information that might help reduce their sentence or prove their innocence.
73% (104) were sentenced before laws barring the execution of people with intellectual disabilities. Despite a promise of relief for these less culpable defendants, disabled prisoners remain on death row.
73% (103) were sentenced before the creation of a statewide indigent defense agency that drastically improved the quality of representation for poor people facing the death penalty, and a law ending an unprecedented requirement that prosecutors pursue the death penalty in every aggravated first-degree murder. Before these changes, prosecutors did not have the ability to seek life sentences in these cases and poor people often received a sub-standard defense.
CDPL’s engaging and easy-to-read report is full of facts and true stories from death row that will change how you think about the death penalty. Read it here.