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.
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.
Defendants accused of killing white victims were more likely to be sentenced to death than those who killed people of color. And prosecutors across North Carolina strike qualified black jurors from serving on capital trials at more than twice the rate that they strike white jurors, resulting in white-dominated juries across North Carolina. Nearly half of N.C.’s death row prisoners were convicted and sentenced by juries with no more than one member of color, and about a fifth were sentenced by all-white juries. These were the findings of a Michigan State University College of Law peer-reviewed study of death penalty trials in North Carolina from 1990 to 2010; the study found juries-of-peers were dominated by whites. Professor James E. Coleman, Jr. writes in his article, The Persistence of Discrimination in Jury Selection: Lessons from North Carolina and Beyond:
The [Michigan State University College of Law] study showed prosecutors struck 53 percent of eligible African American jurors and only 26 percent of all other eligible jurors in those capital proceedings. The researchers found that the probability of this disparity occurring in a race-neutral jury selection was less than one in 10 trillion. After adjusting for nonracial characteristics that might reasonably explain strike decisions, for example, reluctance to impose the death penalty, researchers found prosecutors struck black jurors at 2.5 times the rate they struck all other jurors.
N.C. death row prisoners have also found evidence of discrimination in prosecutors’ own statements, notes, and training materials. For example, a Cumberland County prosecutor made notes such as “blk wino” and “black, high drug” about prospective African American jurors before striking them from the jury. What’s more, a training seminar sponsored by the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys showed prosecutors how to evade laws prohibiting race-based jury strikes. Prosecutors were provided with a cheat sheet of legally acceptable reasons — such as an “air of defiance” or “disheveled appearance” — that they could use to disguise racially motivated strikes of black jurors.
The Racial Justice Act, which provided death row prisoners the opportunity to examine and assert race discrimination in capital sentencing, was repealed in 2013. Most of the evidence uncovered by the Racial Justice Act has never been heard in court, and the defendants who discovered it remain on death row.
Watch a video to understand how African Americans are systematically excluded from capital juries in N.C.:
Read the stories below of North Carolinians affected by pervasive racial bias in their capital trials.
At Robert Bacon’s 1987 trial, prosecutors methodically excluded every prospective black juror. As a result, Robert, a black man, had his case heard by an all-white jury in a county that was 20 percent African-American.
Robert and his white girlfriend, Bonnie Clark, were accused of conspiring to murder Bonnie’s estranged husband, Glennie Clark. The evidence pointed to Bonnie Clark being the mastermind of the crime. She wanted to rid herself of an abusive husband, and she expected to receive $130,000 in life insurance proceeds.
At Bonnie’s trial, even prosecutors argued that Robert was “just a pawn” in the crime. Yet, Bonnie received life and was paroled in 2009. Robert was sentenced to death even though he had no criminal record, promptly confessed to the crime, and aided police in Bonnie’s arrest.
Bonnie’s jury heard evidence of her husband’s history of alcoholism and physical abuse of her and their children. The same evidence was never presented at Robert’s trial, nor did the jury hear about Robert’s own childhood abuse at the hands of an alcoholic parent.
After the trial, a member of the jury swore in an affidavit that other jurors made openly racist jokes, and that they held it against Robert that he was dating a white woman.
In 2001, Robert received clemency from Gov. Mike Easley and is now serving life without parole. Gov. Easley never gave a reason for his grant of clemency, but it marked a rare moment in which clear racial bias in capital sentencing was remedied.
Russell Tucker is an African American man who was sentenced to death in 1996 by an all-white Forsyth County jury. During jury selection, there were five potential African American jurors in the pool, and the prosecutor used discretionary strikes to remove all five. In the 1986 case Batson v. Kentucky, the Supreme Court ruled that removal of jurors on the basis of race violates the Constitution. Russell’s lawyers objected under Batson. The judge found no discrimination.
But the judge did not know the whole story. Years after the trial, as part of the Racial Justice Act, Russell’s lawyers obtained the complete prosecutorial files in his case. They found a copy of a handout from “Top Gun II,” a training course for North Carolina prosecutors. The handout is a cheat sheet designed to help prosecutors violate Batson. During a trial, when the defense objects to the removal of a juror based on Batson, the judge then gives the prosecutor an opportunity to give non-racial reasons for the strike, if they can. By providing a prefabricated list of justifications for strikes, the cheat sheet ensured that prosecutors would always have a reason at the ready, even if their true reason was race.
The handout encourages prosecutors to cite African American jurors’ “rebelliousness,” “air of defiance,” “lack of respect,” “resistance of authority,” and “antagonism,” as reasons they would not make good jurors.
It is clear from Russell’s trial transcript that his prosecutor read from the cheat sheet in court. The prosecutor explained his strike of African American juror Thomas Smalls this way:
This exact language can be found in the handout.
National experts have condemned this cheat sheet. A group of former prosecutors has called it an example of how “some district attorney offices train their prosecutors to deceive judges” as to their race-based motives for striking jurors of color.
Forsyth County has a longstanding problem with racial discrimination in jury selection. Russell is one of four Forsyth defendants on death row who was sentenced to death by all-white juries. A recent Wake Forest University study found that Forsyth prosecutors were three times more likely to strike African Americans than white jurors, the highest strike disparity in the state. The statistical study conducted for the Racial Justice Act concluded that in capital cases from 1990 to 2010, Forsyth prosecutors were more than twice as likely to strike African Americans.
A 2016 study published in the North Carolina Law Review revealed that, in the three decades since Batson was decided, the North Carolina Supreme Court has never found a single instance of discrimination against a minority juror. Nor has the North Carolina Court of Appeals ever found discrimination against a minority juror under Batson. Remarkably, North Carolina is the only state in the entire South in which an appellate court has never in 30 years recognized peremptory strike discrimination against a minority juror. “Statistics are not, of course, the whole answer, but nothing is as emphatic as zero. …”
In a state where people of color comprise a third of the population, and whose history is rife with race discrimination, it is nothing short of stunning that North Carolina’s appellate courts have failed to discern even a single instance of racial bias in jury selection.
To make matters worse, the North Carolina appellate courts ironically have found Batson violations when the defendants were African American and the jurors struck were white. In two cases, the appellate court found discrimination not against African Americans, who have historically been excluded from jury service, but against white citizens.
During his 1992 trial, Kenneth Rouse attempted suicide by smashing his hands through a window and slashing his wrists. His mental disabilities were so severe that he was not fully capable of understanding his actions or participating in his defense. But the biggest strike against him was that he was a black man charged with killing a white woman, and at least one member of his all-white jury was openly racist.
Kenneth was sentenced to death for the 1991 robbery and murder of Hazel Broadway, a clerk at an Asheboro convenience store. After the trial, defense investigators assigned a law student to interview jurors in the case. One juror, Joseph Baynard, signed a sworn affidavit admitting that he had lied to earn his spot on the panel.
Baynard’s mother had been murdered by a black man 40 years earlier, under very similar circumstances to the crime Kenneth stood accused of. In the affidavit, Baynard said, “In particular, the pictures of Mrs. Broadway [the victim] at the murder scene reminded me of pictures of my mother after she had been murdered.” He said he decided not to mention his mother’s killing because he wanted to serve on the jury.
The juror also admitted inthe affidavit that racial bigotry played a role in his decision to sentence a black man to death. Baynard said he believed that “blacks do not care about living as much as whites do” and that “black men rape white women so they can brag about it to their friends.” He referred to African-Americans with racist slurs. He said that one purpose of the death penalty is to rid the world of defective human beings and that Kenneth was “one step above a moron.”
This evidence has never been heard in court. The lower courts denied requests for a new trial, and the federal appeals court refused to hear it because Kenneth’s lawyers filed his petition one day after the deadline.
Four U.S. District Court judges disagreed with the decision not to hear this new evidence in Kenneth’s case. In her dissent, Judge Diana Gribbon Motz said, “I cannot join a decision that would allow the most minor procedural default imaginable to prohibit all evidentiary inquiry into such a serious constitutional claim.” Because of a single day, this important evidence of racial bias and improper jury conduct has never been examined in court — and the death sentence imposed by a biased jury still stands.
In July 2018, the Carolina Justice Policy Center hosted Poetic Justice — an event that paired spoken word artists with criminal justice advocates to tell true stories from the criminal justice system. Poets and advocates explored topics ranging from the death penalty to juvenile justice to bail reform to racial injustice. Among CJPC’s many powerful speakers were attorney Ken Rose and poet Cameron L. Bynum.
Speaking about the trial of his client Tilmon Golphin, Ken reflected, “This is a story about race relations in the late 1990s. This is a story about a person who’s charged in Fayetteville, in Cumberland County. But they moved the trial. And where would they move the trial if it’s an African American defendant accused of killing two white police officers? Where do you think they’d move the trial? Well, of course, they would move it to Johnston County.” It’s worth noting that Johnston County for years greeted visitors with a sign: Join & Support United Klans of America Inc.
Tilmon’s jury was comprised of eleven white jurors and one African American juror. During jury selection, another African American prospective juror, who was a war veteran, overheard two white prospective jurors say about Tilmon, “They should have taken him out and killed him in the woods where they captured him.” When the African American man reported what he had overheard to the court, the two white prospective jurors were not excused. Instead, the African American juror was.
Watch the video below to hear Cameron (in thumbnail below) and Ken’s poignant words.
I am a mother of four and no stranger to tragedy. One of my sons, Curtis Green, was beaten to death in 2006. His killers dropped his body in a ditch beside a road like he was a piece of garbage.
My youngest son, Marcus Robinson, was sentenced to death in 1994. It truly breaks my heart that Marcus was involved in a crime that took another young man’s life, Erik Tornblom, from his family. He didn’t deserve to die. I know that his parents have suffered this loss with great pain and I am so very sorry.
In 2007, Marcus came within hours of his execution date and time, before it was stopped by the court. They said it was because of problems with the lethal injection process. If the state had killed Marcus, he wouldn’t have lived to see the N.C. Racial Justice Act passed in 2009. This Act revealed evidence that Marcus’s case and others were influenced by racial bias in how prosecutors chose which cases were capital, and how they selected capital juries.
After a two-week hearing in 2012, a judge found that race had been a significant factor in sentencing Marcus to death. The judge resentenced Marcus to life without parole. Our legislature later repealed the Racial Justice Act, which allowed a different judge to overturn Marcus’s resentencing. The repeal disregarded the evidence of racial bias without even looking at it.
Marcus was sent back to death row. This month, the N.C. Supreme Court agreed to hear Marcus’s case to consider whether it was illegal for the legislature to take the RJA away from him after the original judge found there was racial bias in his trial. I am optimistic that the court will not allow the legislature, through its RJA repeal, to sweep the evidence of racial bias under the rug.
The men who killed my son Curtis, who were black, got shockingly lighter sentences. One served 12 to 15 years, a second one got 5 to 6 years and the last one got 2 to 3 years. Seeing Curtis’s case treated this way made me feel like the state didn’t value his life at all.
The state’s approach was completely different when my son Marcus was involved in the murder of Tornblom, a white 17-year-old. The prosecutors pushed for the death penalty for Marcus even though there were many reasons the case should never have been a capital case.
Marcus suffered extreme physical abuse by his father. When he was 3, he was hospitalized with seizures and a traumatic brain injury because of the beatings. I tried to protect Marcus, but my husband beat me too, and threatened to kill me. I left his father when Marcus was 4, but the damage was done. Marcus had brain damage, depression and trouble controlling his behavior.
By the time he was a teenager he ended up in a juvenile detention center for a minor offense. However, he never got the psychiatric care he needed.
Marcus, just turning 18 at the time of Tornblom’s murder, was placed on death row. He was the youngest person there. If Marcus had been only a few months younger, the U.S. Supreme Court would have forbidden a death sentence, because he would have been a juvenile.
Years after the trial was over, prosecutors said in a statement to the legislature that the co-defendant, not Marcus, was the real shooter. Their statement was consistent with what Marcus has always said.
Marcus should not be executed, especially not before the courts hold a fair hearing on the evidence that his death sentence came about in a racially biased manner. One judge has already found that such bias existed. Our Supreme Court, which is bound to fairness, now has a duty to all North Carolina citizens to make sure that this evidence sees the light of day.
“After studying the Bible,” the juror said, “I have wondered if black people even have souls.” Prosecutors later made the ludicrous claim that, when the juror said “n—-r,” he didn’t mean it in a racist way.
This kind of racism in a life-or-death trial flies in the face of our country’s most basic beliefs about justice. It might be tempting to believe this case was just an anomaly. But Keith Tharpe is far from the only defendant to be sentenced to death by a deeply racist juror.
Just look at these North Carolina cases:
Kenneth Rouse was sent to N.C. death row 1992, the same year Tharpe received his sentence in Georgia. After the trial, one of Rouse’s jurors told defense investigators that “bigotry” played an important role in his decision. The juror also used the n-word and said that “black men rape white women so they can brag about it to their friends.” He said he believed that “blacks do not care about living as much as whites do.” Rouse remains on death row.
At Robert Bacon’s trial in 1987, jurors made racist jokes and held it against Bacon that he was dating a white woman. He eventually won clemency from the governor.
Like many death row inmates, Rouse and Bacon were sentenced by all-white juries. Often, prosecutors make explicitly racial appeals to white juries. Both of these men remain on death row:
During his trial in front of an all-white jury, Guy LeGrande was called a “n—-r” by three separate witnesses. The Stanly County prosecutor, known for wearing a noose-shaped lapel pin, invoked the image of evidence that would come together “twisted and bound into a rope.”
A prosecutor at Rayford Burke‘s trial referred to him as a “big black bull” during closing arguments in front of the all-white jury.
Diverse juries are key to driving racism out of capital sentencing. Studies show that they deliberate more thoroughly and make fewer mistakes. Juries with people of color are also less likely to be swayed by prosecutors who use racial stereotypes to push for death sentences.
Yet, the practice of excluding people of color from juries remains rampant in N.C. capital trials.
Prosecutors are more than twice as likely to strike qualified African Americans as they are to strike whites. More than 60 of N.C.’s 145 death row inmates were sentenced by juries with no more than one person of color. More than 25 of them had all-white juries.
The legislature repealed the Racial Justice Act, which was enacted to remedy jury discrimination, and the courts have refused to hear more than 100 claims of such discrimination brought by N.C. death row inmates.
Georgia is not an exception. In North Carolina and across the country, we are a long way from fulfilling our promise of color-blind justice, even in life-and-death trials.
Last week, a man who spent nearly 20 years on death row was re-sentenced to life in prison without parole. This was a sane resolution to a senseless and much-regretted crime committed by a deeply troubled teenager.
Phillip Davis was re-sentenced with the full of support Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams, who acknowledged unfairness in Davis’ case. “Our system has built-in checks on abuses such as discrimination and prosecutorial misconduct. When the system is not allowed to work as it’s naturally intended to, that’s when you have a problem,” Williams told the Asheville Citizen Times.
It’s a prosecutor’s job to seek justice, rather than blindly seeking the harshest possible punishment. That’s why it was so refreshing to see a prosecutor willing to consider all the circumstances and come to a sensible agreement that serves justice and saves taxpayers money.
If only more North Carolina prosecutors would begin reevaluating the cases of the nearly 150 men and women on death row. The majority of them were sentenced to death more than 15 years ago, some as long as 30.
They were sentenced at a time when vastly different laws led to dozens of people being sent to death row each year. Now, with executions on hold for a decade and juries imposing an average of only one death sentence a year, they languish on death row year after year.
Settling these old cases for sentences of life imprisonment with no possibility of parole would end costly appeals and ensure that defendants are never released from prison — while giving a punishment that is far more fitting with North Carolina’s current standards of justice. Once in general population, inmates cost less to house and can get jobs that allow them to contribute to society.
In Davis’ case, he was just four months past the age that would now make him ineligible for the death penalty when, as a high school senior, he killed his cousin, Caroline Miller, and his aunt, Joyce Miller, after an argument. Davis was living with them because his mother — a lifelong drug addict who had subjected him to a traumatic childhood — was in prison.
Davis, whose IQ puts him in the range of borderline intellectual functioning, immediately accepted responsibility for his crimes and expressed deep remorse. He voiced his sorrow and regret for his actions again in court last week, his voice choked with emotion: “To family members and anyone who knew Joyce and Caroline, they were two very special people who were loved by a lot of people including myself. I regret everything that happened and it’s something I’ll regret for the rest of my life.”
The prosecutor who agreed to his new sentence acknowledged that race wrongly played a role in selecting the all-white jury that sentenced Davis to death in 1997. It is illegal to strike jurors based on race, and in 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed that in the strongest terms ever.
The problem was compounded when prosecutors in Davis’ case took the unusual step of shredding many of their notes from jury selection, making it impossible to examine them for evidence of racial bias.
The victims’ family members said they were satisfied with the life sentence. They have worked over many years to rebuild their relationship with Davis, and his new sentence allows the family’s healing to continue.
It’s a resolution that makes sense for all involved.
the more you know about a defendant, the less likely you are to support his or her execution; the more you know about the criminal justice system, the less likely you are to support anyone's execution