43 years after death sentence, Charles Ray Finch proves his innocence

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Charles Ray Finch in 2015.
Charles Ray Finch in 2015. Photo by Brad Coville, Wilson Daily Times.

Jan. 31, 2019

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.

Virtually every aspect of Fowler’s identification is now illegal, thanks to reforms meant to prevent mistaken IDs. Yet, Fowler remains on death row because of a tainted police lineup from 20 years ago. [Learn more about how most of North Carolina’s death row prisoners were tried under obsolete laws.]

As long as we have the death penalty, innocent people will be in danger of execution. How many more people must be exonerated before North Carolina ends the death penalty?

Why we’re winning the fight against the death penalty in North Carolina

NC Supreme Court Building with American and State Flag, seen through the trees
North Carolina Supreme Court

 

December 17, 2018 

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.

In 2019, we have more reform-minded DAs who will take office in Durham and Charlotte. We’re hoping they will be part of a national trend away from the death penalty, mass incarceration, and racially-disparate punishments. [America’s Leading Reform-Minded District Attorney Has Taken His Most Radical Step Yet]

As this year comes to a close, 140 people remain on death row in North Carolina. Their lives depend on us continuing to fight — and continuing to win.

Resentenced to Life: Why justice matters, even for my guilty clients

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.

 

Jimmy Morgan at his court hearing last week.

 

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.

Elizabeth Hambourger

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.

NC, let’s take a hint from Washington: It’s time to end the racist death penalty

October 16, 2018

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.

Why most of N.C.’s death row inmates never should have gotten the death penalty

October 9, 2018

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.

CDPL’s report, Unequal Justice: How Obsolete Laws and Unfair Trials Created North Carolina’s Outsized Death Row, finds that out of 142 death row prisoners in North Carolina:

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.

Remaining human in the face of an inhumane death penalty system

October 3, 2018

It’s hard to describe what it feels like to be a capital defense attorney. To be responsible for saving the lives of people who’ve committed terrible crimes, and sometimes, to be forced to watch them die. In this video, Elizabeth Hambourger, a staff attorney at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, explains in moving and personal terms what it’s like to do this most difficult of jobs.

She performed this piece at Poetic Justice, an event organized by the Carolina Justice Policy Center, in which poets, advocates, attorneys, and others told stories of the criminal justice system. Take a few minutes to watch, and step into someone else’s world.

Some of Elizabeth’s words:

I was a 22 year old summer intern when I was asked to work on the case of a man named Timmy. He was scheduled to be executed at the end of that summer … And I went to see Timmy’s family. He had a young son. And I remember sitting in that family’s home and the boy brought out his calendar, like the kind you hang on the wall. And in the square of the date on the calendar that was the execution date, he had written “Dad dies.”

The more I know about the death penalty, the more problems I see with it. But what seems most pressing to me now is that the death penalty increases pain. It’s like a machine that takes this terribly painful human event, and it takes that pain and replicates it and sends it spewing out in all directions.

By my count, I have gotten to know about 20 people living their lives on death row. Under sentence of death, but living their lives. Some have a hard time coping. But there are some who I actually count as role models for me in how to grow and change and deal with the difficult parts of life.

I have one client who writes beautiful essays that he shares with the world by having his friend post for him online. I have another client who helps administer a pen pal program for his fellow inmates.  I have another client who when I met him he wanted to die. Slowly, through artwork and by building relationships with other inmates, pen pals, and his legal team, he has gained the will to live. He had no contact with his mother when I met him. And then one day around Christmas time he heard a sappy song on the radio that made him want to write to his mom, and through that small act of humility he has rebuilt their relationship into something they never had before he went to prison. One client remarked to me that God works in mysterious ways: he had to be sentenced to death in order to learn that there were people in the world who would care about him and fight for him.

See more videos from Poetic Justice here.

Jurors sent an innocent man to death row. Now they ask: “Where did we go wrong?”

Originally published in the News & Observer

Henry McCollum, moments after his exoneration. ©Jenny Warburg

By Kristin Collins

September 6, 2018

One elderly woman sat with us in her living room, wearing a pink nightgown. “I should have followed my conscience,” she said, her hands shaking. “I hope he can forgive me.” It’s unclear if she’s seeking forgiveness from the innocent man she sent to death row, or God himself.

She believed the Bible’s instruction: “Thou shalt not kill.” Yet, as a juror decades earlier, she voted for a death sentence for Henry McCollum, an intellectually disabled teenager who was accused of raping and murdering an 11-year-old girl in Robeson County.

The juror put the trial out of her mind until, four years ago this week, McCollum was exonerated. New DNA testing proved another man guilty, and McCollum blameless.  After 30 years on death row, McCollum was free.

Kristin Collins

At the time, I was relatively new to my job at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, whose lawyers represented McCollum. His story showed me just how high the stakes are in this world. North Carolina came close to executing an innocent man.

I am still learning from his case. This spring and summer, a co-worker and I criss-crossed Robeson and Cumberland counties, finding jurors who unwittingly sentenced an innocent man to death. The jurors served at McCollum’s original trial in 1983, and his retrial in 1991, held in Fayetteville. Both juries voted unanimously for death.

We hoped they could shed light on how our system got it so terribly wrong. But as I knocked on strangers’ doors, I worried they would be defensive or angry. Instead, they welcomed us into their homes.

Some seemed relieved to finally talk through the trauma of the trial, though none would let us use their names. Many were ashamed of their role, afraid of what their neighbors would think. Some feared God’s wrath, and wondered if they would go to hell for McCollum’s wrongful conviction. Some shed tears at the mention of his name and said the experience was too painful to revisit. They remembered McCollum at the defense table, silent and unresponsive, like a confused and broken child.

All were denied the information they needed to reach a fair verdict. They were shown gruesome crime photos and McCollum’s confession, written by the police. Even McCollum’s defense attorneys admitted his guilt, believing the jury would spare him if he accepted responsibility.

No one told the jury that another, almost identical crime was committed just a month after the girl’s murder — and that the culprit was not McCollum, but a man who lived by the field where her body was found. The jury didn’t know fingerprints were found at the scene, and that none of them were McCollum’s. They didn’t know the case against McCollum started with a rumor from a teenage girl, who later admitted she made it up.

One juror said his biggest regret is that he trusted prosecutors to tell the truth. If McCollum was on trial, he believed, he’d probably done it.

Like everyone we talked to, his most vivid memories were the photos. At the time, he had a daughter the same age as the victim. When the verdict was announced in the courtroom, he looked at her father. The juror had done what the prosecutor said was right, and he hoped it would ease another father’s pain.

“I’ve been trying to figure out, where did we go wrong?” he said. “I feel like we got duped by the system.”

I was in the courtroom for McCollum’s exoneration four years ago. I will never forget the sight of him standing in a cage – the court probably calls it a holding cell – during a break. He stared silently at the floor, powerless against a system that had chained and caged him for his entire adult life.

Now, there is another image that stays with me. A woman sitting in the dim light of her living room, hardly strong enough to rise from her chair, wondering what those 30 years were like for Henry McCollum. Wondering whether God has heard her pleas for forgiveness.

An execution’s aftermath: “I watched him die 15 years ago, and I still talk to him sometimes”

Gretchen Engel holding a painting by her executed client, Quentin Jones.

By Gretchen M. Engel

August 22, 2018

I watched him die 15 years ago, and I still talk to him sometimes. I talked to him a lot in the weeks after he was killed and thought maybe I was going a little crazy. And then I thought, it’s probably normal to go a little crazy when you see somebody killed 10 feet in front of you, somebody you knew really well and cared about and tried so hard to save.

I’m talking about my client, Quentin Jones, who was executed at 2 a.m. on August 22, 2003. Quentin was 18, homeless, and addicted to drugs in 1987, when he robbed a convenience store with an Uzi 9mm pistol. The store camera caught most of the crime on tape. You can’t see Quentin shooting Edward Peebles, who had stopped in for coffee after playing music with his friends, but you can hear it. Like Quentin, Peebles had a young daughter. During Quentin’s capital sentencing hearing, the two toddlers played together in the back of the courtroom.

At the execution, Peebles’ daughter sat behind me, softly crying. Her grandfather, Peebles’ father, sat next to me in a three-piece blue-striped suit. We were so tightly packed in our row of plastic chairs that his left leg was firmly pressed against my right. On my other side were Quentin’s uncle and younger brother. While Quentin lay on the gurney waiting to be poisoned, his brother signed to him. As children, they’d learned sign language because they had a cousin who couldn’t hear. Quentin mouthed his love for us and an apology to Peebles’ family.

On left: A 1999 photo of Quentin, which was part of his clemency petition. On right: A portrait of Quentin by former death row prisoner Jamie Cheek, drawn in response to Quentin’s execution.

This wasn’t new. Quentin confessed and pled guilty. He told the police and the jury he was sorry. In my meetings with him, he frequently and consistently expressed his regret and sorrow for the deep pain he’d caused the Peebles family. He never tried to evade responsibility for what he did.

Quentin also had extraordinary insight about his life and compassion for those who failed him: a mother who struggled with drug addiction and a father who faced his own demons, cycling from homelessness to more than a dozen involuntary commitments at Dorothea Dix hospital. Quentin was the oldest son and, to help his family, he turned to the crack-infested streets of Baltimore, joined a gang, and entered the drug trade.

Despite a diagnosis of PTSD rooted in his experience of childhood trauma, Quentin grew up during 16 years on death row. He never finished high school, but in prison he read and studied. Quentin had a quick mind and he was thoughtful. He wrote poetry and embraced spirituality, becoming a devout Muslim. He maintained relationships with his family, despite distance and poverty that made it difficult for them to visit. He was a supportive and bright light in the life of his pen pal, an English woman raising a child with autism. A psychologist was so touched by his work with Quentin that he came to the prison the day of the execution to say goodbye, and ended up staying through to the bitter end. Every lawyer who ever represented Quentin urged the governor to commute the death sentence.

Over the nine years I represented Quentin, I came to know his family, and they were at the prison all day and into the night of the execution. On that terrible day, the worst moment was telling Quentin’s family that the governor had denied clemency, there was nothing left, their son and brother would be killed in 90 minutes. His younger sister let out a howl that I can still hear now. She sounded like an animal dying in a trap.

A social worker and I then went to give Quentin the news. When we told him, and started sobbing, he gathered us into his arms and comforted us. Quentin was so much more than the worst thing he’d done. I often wondered, as I have with other clients, what he might have accomplished if someone had taken the time to see his potential as a child and to rescue him from the violence that surrounded him.

In the face of horrible crimes, we often ask, how could someone do this? After defending men and women facing the death penalty for close to three decades, I can tell you how: Allow children to grow up in poverty, incarcerate their fathers, deprive their mothers of mental health care and drug treatment, confine them in dangerous and violent neighborhoods, send them to underfunded and overcrowded schools, and permit school suspensions and juvenile arrests to limit their opportunities.

In the weeks after the execution, I thought of little else. I painstakingly retraced and second-guessed every decision I’d made in Quentin’s case. I talked to him while walking my dog.

I wished so much then and still wish now that I’d been able to convey Quentin’s humanity to the judges who ruled in his case and the governor who decided against commutation. Perhaps they, and the jurors who sentenced Quentin to death, thought they were rooting out evil, teaching a lesson, meting out justice. What I saw was another killing that perpetuated a cycle of violence and trauma that continues to play out in many lives, including mine.

Gretchen M. Engel is the executive director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation and has represented death row prisoners for more than 25 years.

N.C. Supreme Court overturns death sentence for disabled man

 

Justices' benches at the Supreme Court of the State of North Carolina

June 12, 2018

Just three people have been sentenced to death in North Carolina in the past five years. But even with the number of death sentences slowed to a trickle, our state still can’t get it right.

Last week, the N.C. Supreme Court overturned the sentence of Juan Rodriguez, who was sentenced to death in 2014 in Forsyth County. The court said there was ample evidence that Rodriguez had intellectual disabilities and mental illness that impaired his ability to understand his actions or make rational decisions — factors that should have moved the jury to spare him from the death penalty.

Yet, the jury was not instructed to consider Rodriguez’s serious intellectual and mental disabilities. Had they been told to take them into account, the court said, there is a good chance they would have voted to spare Rodriguez’s life. Rodriguez will now get a new sentencing hearing, and another chance to prove that he is legally ineligible for the death penalty.

Rodriguez grew up in severe poverty in El Salvador during a bloody civil war. As a young child he endured gun fights and bomb blasts and saw dead bodies on his way to school. He was frequently hungry, had little or no medical care, and was exposed to pesticides and contaminated water. When he was 16 years old, his brother was killed by guerrillas after joining the army and Rodriguez had to retrieve his brother’s body and bring it home. He scored just 61 on an IQ test, placing him in the lowest 2 percent of the population. Experts say he suffers from lifelong disabilities, made worse by the trauma he endured as a child.

Rodriguez was convicted of killing his estranged wife, Maria Rodriguez, in 2010. She had recently left him after enduring years of abuse. The crime, which left their three children without parents, certainly warrants punishment — but the death penalty was not appropriate in this case.

The death penalty is given to just a tiny fraction of people who commit murder and is intended only for the most culpable defendants. Yet, the system continues to prove itself incapable of correctly deciding which defendants should live and which should die.

At least nine of the men sentenced to death in North Carolina have been innocent. Many more — like Rodriguez — are people with disabilities, mental illness, and horribly traumatic childhoods that make them not the worst of the worst, but the most vulnerable among us.

This keeps happening: Wake jury rejects death penalty for 9th time in a row

Donovan Richardson

January 24, 2018

It’s starting to feel like Groundhog Day in Wake County. Every year begins with a capital trial, and every year, the jury chooses life. This week was the ninth time since 2008 that a Wake jury said no to the death penalty. [Donovan Richardson sentenced to life in prison for 2014 double murder]

We’re hoping that, from now on, we can skip this annual ritual.

Wake is the only county in the state where a defendant has been tried capitally every year for the past three years. Since the beginning of 2016, three of North Carolina’s 10 capital trials have been in Wake County. By contrast, Mecklenburg County — home to Charlotte — hasn’t had a capital trial since 2014.

Why has a county where a jury hasn’t agreed to death sentence in a decade become North Carolina’s leader in death penalty trials? It makes no sense.

It’s not as if a capital trial is the same as a non-capital one with another sentence option thrown in. Adding the death penalty to the mix transforms the entire process. The defendant has a right to two attorneys, the jury members must be chosen based on their willingness to impose a death sentence, the trial lasts weeks longer, and the process costs more than four times as much as a non-capital prosecution.

There’s something else, too, that’s starting to get repetitive in Wake County. At every capital trial, it’s a black defendant having his fate decided by an almost entirely white jury. At the last three capital trials combined, there were only two black jurors.

In fact, we got curious and looked back. Of Wake’s nine failed capital trials since 2009, seven of the defendants were black. And during those years, several white defendants were tried non-capitally for high-profile crimes. Remember Jonathan Broyhill, Joanna Madonna, Jason Young, or Bradley Cooper?

There are just so many reasons for North Carolina’s capital county to leave the shadow of the death penalty behind.

Time to move on: Calls for death penalty fall flat in N.C.

December 17, 2017

Maybe you heard that N.C. legislative leaders called last week for executions to return to North Carolina. It’s one of the oldest political tricks in the book, whipping up fervor for the death penalty to score points with conservative voters.

But in 2017, more than 11 years after North Carolina’s last execution, it’s starting to feel a bit retro.

Let’s take a look back at this year:

There were just four capital trials in North Carolina and juries rejected the death penalty at every one of them. This means N.C. juries have sent just one person to death row in the past three and a half years.

Most N.C. district attorneys didn’t seek the death penalty at all, and some said they see no point in continuing to pursue death sentences. Life without parole is a harsh punishment suitable for the worst crimes.

Four more U.S. death row inmates were exonerated, and a Gallup poll found death penalty support was at its lowest point in 45 years.

A N.C. death row inmate won a new trial after the vast majority of the evidence against him was discredited. Michael Patrick Ryan, who has always claimed his innocence, is awaiting his new day in court to prove he was wrongly convicted in 2010.

Other states that tried to carry out executions continued to botch them terribly and scramble for lethal drugs.

[Read the Center for Death Penalty Litigation’s year-end report on the state of the N.C. death penalty.]

In light of those facts, North Carolina looks pretty smart to have stayed out of the execution business for another year.

The truth is, resuming executions would do nothing to solve today’s problems. Instead, we would be executing people who were tried 15, 20, or even 30 years ago — before a slew of reforms intended to protect innocent people and ensure fair trials. More than three-quarters of North Carolina’s 143 death row inmates were tried at least 15 years ago.

As we look to 2018, let’s skip the outdated death penalty rhetoric and start looking for solutions that actually make people safer — like properly staffing prisons and supplying guards with working radios.

A life condemned: Remembering my client who died on death row

Terry Ball at the end of his life

By Elizabeth Hambourger

November 14, 2017

I’m a capital defense lawyer. At any given time, I represent a dozen or more men and women who are either on death row or charged with first-degree murder. Death is an inescapable part of my work, but that’s been true this year more than most. In January, my client Ricky “Coolie” Gray was executed in Virginia. And although North Carolina has not executed anyone in over a decade, those confined to our death row are beginning to die of old age and sickness. In October, my client Terry Ball died of natural causes at Central Prison. Much has been written about Coolie’s life. Terry, by contrast, slipped away with barely a mention after living on death row for almost 25 years. I believe his life is worth remembering, and that his story, like all my clients’ stories, hold keys to understanding the origins of crime and our shared humanity with people labeled the worst of the worst.

Terry grew up in Mansfield, Ohio. His parents lost their first-born child in a farming accident, but they did their loving best for Terry and his sister. Terry’s problems seem to have begun at age 10, when he was hit by a car and spent eight weeks in the hospital. The head trauma he suffered permanently changed him. His grades fell and he became defiant with his parents. However, the severity of his brain injury was not fully diagnosed at the time.

Perhaps it was because of this brain damage that Terry made the fateful decision to run away from home at 13. He was in love with a girl named Kim and their parents didn’t approve of the relationship, so Terry and Kim ran off together to Cincinnati. A man named Jerry Wood approached the pair at a bus station and offered them a place to stay. Terry and Kim gratefully accepted, having no idea that Wood was not only a career criminal but a serial rapist of runaway and neglected boys. Wood was at that very moment wanted by police for felony assault.

Elizabeth Hambourger

Wood quickly put Kim on a bus back home but forced Terry to remain with him for the next month, raping him repeatedly, keeping him high on drugs, and forcing him to steal. Eventually Terry managed to escape. But when he returned home, he was treated not as a victim but a delinquent and placed in a juvenile detention center as punishment for running away.

Terry’s parents and the mental health workers at the detention center seemed unable to confront the reality that Terry had been raped. Because of the stigma and misinformation surrounding homosexuality in the 1970s, they worried that he was gay instead of treating him as a victim of sexual assault. One psychiatrist wrote: “When he was away from home, he traveled all over the country with a 32-year-old male. This association raised the question of possible homosexuality; Terry denies this… The parents… at the present time appear to be concerned in case the label of homosexual will be applied to Terry.” Terry never received any treatment or even recognition of the trauma he’d been through, and Jerry Wood was never prosecuted for it. Today, Wood is serving a 45-year sentence in Pennsylvania for the rapes of two other children.

Without treatment, Terry turned to drug use, a trick he’d learned from Jerry Wood to dull his pain, shame, and rage. He enlisted, but was discharged from the Navy because of addiction and then committed several violent drug-motivated robberies. He served prison terms for beating a woman with a hammer and slitting a young man’s throat. By some stroke of luck, both victims survived.

In 1990, released from prison and living in Washington, N.C., Terry discovered crack cocaine. He checked himself into three treatment centers in three years, desperate to kick his addiction.  During one of those stints, he met his wife Sherry. He joined Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous and held down a maintenance job. He also began attending a local church pastored by Tony Krantz.

Krantz lived in Washington with his wife, Laura, and two school-aged children. Terry confided in Tony and Laura about his addiction, and they tried to help. Tony took him fishing. But one night in June 1993, Terry relapsed. He binged on crack and pills until he ran out. Then, desperate for money to buy more, he went to the Krantz home.

It was 4:30 a.m. when Tony Krantz found Terry at his front door. Terry said he wanted to talk and Tony poured him a Dr. Pepper at the kitchen table. Suddenly, Terry attacked him with a knife. Seriously injured, Tony managed to call 911 before running for help. In the meantime, Tony’s wife Laura had come downstairs. Terry stabbed her 17 times before running out of the house. Laura bled to death with her children beside her.

Terry was sentenced to death just seven months later. This was the mid-90s, when North Carolina juries were handing out dozens of death sentences a year. Like many people tried during those years, Terry’s story of childhood trauma and brain damage was barely told at trial. If his trial were today, this mitigating evidence would have been thoroughly presented and likely would have persuaded a jury to sentence him to life without parole instead of death.

Terry lived on death row for 24 years. His case churned ever-so-slowly through the appeals process, hitting one delay after another. His mother and sister died and Terry’s health deteriorated. For the last few years he was confined to a wheelchair in constant pain. He was only 59 when he died. It was a hard life, but I am grateful he passed away in his cell, near the other condemned men who had become his family, rather than spending his final days in the miserable solitary confinement of the Central Prison hospital.

Terry Ball caused a lot of pain in his life, and he also experienced more than his share. The same is certainly true of Coolie and most of the thousands of men and women still on our nation’s death rows. This is who we sentence to death: the most damaged, the most abused; traumatized children who grow into adults without learning how to cope with their fear and anger. The death penalty says these lives have no value. I disagree.

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