FAITH & ABOLITION

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Faith leaders and organizations representing a variety of faiths have spoken in opposition to the death penalty, often calling upon their innate beliefs in human dignity and redemption.

The Death Penalty Information Center has compiled statements from a broad array of faith leaders, highlights the views of those speaking from a faith perspective when the comments relate to a case or controversy involving capital punishment, and features the results of death penalty polls when broken down by particular faiths.

The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty has gathered statements opposition to capital punishment from leaders of faith, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism.


CHRISTIANITY

 

Minister Chazle’ Woodley shares her sermon, Faith & the Death Penalty: Through the Eyes of Jesus.

 

In 2018, Pope Francis declared the death penalty wrong in all cases, a definitive change in church teaching. From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

Today … there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state.  Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.

Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”, and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.

 

See Equal Justice USA’s Evangelical Network:

We are Evangelicals and we recognize that every person is created in the image of God, and therefore all life has immeasurable value. We believe that our justice system should reflect this truth, and that every individual should be treated with respect and dignity.

Our current justice system, and our responses to violence in particular, have not lived up to this vision and instead have delivered further pain and harm to communities. We need new responses to violence that address trauma, advance racial equity, and fulfill the promise of healing, safety, and restoration for all.

 

Check out Sister Helen Prejean and the Ministry Against the Death Penalty:

The movement to abolish the death penalty needs the religious community because the heart of religion is about compassion, human rights, and the indivisible dignity of each human person made in the image of God.

 

See Baptist Theologian Roger E Olson on Why Authentic Christians Must Oppose the Death Penalty:

When we take another human life unnecessarily, we usurp God’s prerogative for that person’s eventual salvation or, if they are already saved, for that person’s future service for the Kingdom of God.

For this reason alone, if for no other, Christians must oppose capital punishment. How we oppose it is another question. I know that if I lived anywhere near this state’s death chamber I would join the few opponents of capital punishment that routinely gather for a prayer vigil, often with signs expressing opposition to the death penalty, on the days when prisoners are to be executed.

 

See the United Methodist Church:

We worship a God who received the death penalty. Jesus was tried, sentenced, and murdered by the state. He died on a cross on a hill between two criminals.

That cross was the symbol of the oppressive power the Roman state. It was the tool the Romans used to keep the population in line. The cross on a hill said, “behave, or you will end up here.”

Jesus took that cross. He died and was buried. On the third day, he rose from the dead. The empty tomb is a God’s proclamation that love and grace triumph over oppression and death.

Christ’s resurrection is a rejection of all that the cross represented.


ISLAM

From the NCADP:

If you do stretch your hand against me to kill me, I shall never stretch my hand against you to kill you, I will not commit the same evil act that you threaten to commit, so that I will not earn the same sin as you, for I fear Allah; the Lord of the all that exists.

-Qur’an, 5:28 (Islamic Holy Book)

The story of Cain and Abel in the Qur’an includes a dialogue between the two brothers. After Cain threatens to take Abel’s life, the latter refuses to inflict harm in self-defense. Abel did not want to shed blood, thereby destroying a life created by God and defiling the divine creation.


JUDAISM

From the NCADP:

It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death.

– Sefer Hamitzvot (Book of the Commandments)

This quote by Moses Maimonides, the great 12th-century Jewish rabbi and scholar, expresses a key element found in most religious traditions – that innocent life has immense intrinsic value. It is far too risky to have capital punishment because of the very real likelihood of executing an innocent person. Such a possibility is anathema to people of faith and others of goodwill.

 

See The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism:

Since 1959, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) and the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) have formally opposed the death penalty.

The CCAR resolved in 1979 that “both in concept and in practice, Jewish tradition found capital punishment repugnant” and there is no persuasive evidence “that capital punishment serves as a deterrent to crime.”

The URJ notes that: “We believe that there is no crime for which the taking of human life by society is justified, and that it is the obligation of society to evolve other methods in dealing with crime. We appeal to our congregants and to our co-religionists and to all who cherish God’s mercy and love to join in efforts to eliminate this practice [of capital punishment] which lies as a stain upon civilization and our religious conscience.”


BUDDHISM

Andre Smith

 

Andre is a practicing Buddhist, and was already teaching meditation and anger management to incarcerated men at Nash Correctional when his son, Peace, was murdered. Losing Peace, he said, makes him even more dedicated to his practice and his teaching.

Some people are still living their loss after seven years, twenty years—they still can’t let it go. What can you do? There is nothing I can do or say. People hear my story of forgiveness, but they don’t see how they could get there or even if they should get there. I thought my daughter would be angry at me for forgiving her brother’s killer but, after a time, she told her mom, I’m not mad at Dad. I am just angry at myself because I can’t get there. You do question yourself and ask, What is wrong with me? Is it because I do not love my son? It is not an easy path.

Learn more about Andre and his work at the Kadampa Center here.

 

From the NCADP:

Everyone fears punishment; everyone fears death, just as you do. Therefore you do not kill or cause to be killed.

-Dhammapada 10:124 (Teachings of the Buddha)

We are all connected. We oppose the death penalty because you cannot kill the murder without causing a ripple effect of pain that goes beyond the prisoner to his or her family, corrections employees and their families and the community. And the focus on killing the killer detracts focus and resources away from the true work of healing devastated families and our communities.

People of faith must help lead the effort to end capital punishment. Moral force, combined with pragmatic leadership is what it will take to end the death penalty.


UNITARIAN UNIVERSALISTS

See the Unitarian Universalists Association’s Case Against the Death Penalty

 

And in the 1974 Unitarian Universalist’s General Resolution:

WHEREAS, at this time, even though there has been no execution in the United States for the past seven years, twenty-eight states have already passed legislation seeking to re-establish capital punishment; and

WHEREAS, the act of execution of the death penalty by government sets an example of violence;

BE IT RESOLVED: That the 1974 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association continues to oppose the death penalty in the United States and Canada, and urges all Unitarian Universalists and their local churches and fellowships to oppose any attempts to restore or continue it in any form.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

From CDPL’s Press Release:

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

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

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

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

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

In a separate ruling in June, the court also said that all North Carolina death row prisoners who filed RJA claims before the law’s 2013 repeal are entitled to hearings where they can present evidence that prosecutors purposefully excluded African American citizens from their juries and that racism tainted their trials. The courts have not yet decided how those cases will proceed.

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


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

Go here for more detail on the Racial Justice Act.

RESTORATIVE JUSTICE

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Our current criminal legal system offers only one remedy when a crime has been committed: punishment. With the largest prison population in the world, the United States spends billions of dollars each year imprisoning and executing people. In North Carolina alone, about 66,000 adults are in prison or jail. And as much as the punishment system pays lip service to the victims of crime, it often ignores the central questions that might help create healing for people harmed by crime, their communities, and even the people who harmed them. But there is an alternative.

Who has been harmed?
Why did it happen?
What would help to repair the harm?
How can we make sure this doesn’t happen again?

These are the questions asked by restorative justice, a growing movement that seeks alternatives to the punishment-only model. Restorative justice sees a crime as more than breaking the law; it’s an action that harms relationships and communities. The restorative justice process empowers those who are most affected by crime to have a voice in how that harm should be repaired. It promotes carefully facilitated dialogues that often result in transformation for both those harmed and those who committed crimes. The process typically ends with concrete steps the offender must take to make amends, tailored to the specific crime, its victims, and the community in which it happened. In other cases, it is used after the fact to help victims and offenders understand and heal from the trauma of the crime.

 

NCCADP Board Member Erica Washington, reading here at the Carolina Justice Policy Center’s annual Poetic Justice event, works with Impact Justice’s Restorative Justice Project

 

Right now, restorative justice is used in some North Carolina school districts — including Wake, Durham, and Chapel Hill — to keep children out of the criminal punishment system. A few North Carolina district attorneys have also begun to use restorative justice alongside the traditional legal process. In some cases, it has helped people take responsibility for their crimes while avoiding long prison terms, which are costly not just for incarcerated individuals but for their families, their communities, and the state. It might be tempting to think of restorative justice as a way for people to get off easy, but those familiar with the process say it makes far more demands on a person than the typical criminal legal system, where defendants passively receive punishment from a faceless system. In the criminal process, defendants sometimes come to feel like victims of a flawed system and avoid the difficult emotional work of taking responsibility for their behavior. By contrast, facing the people they harmed is a grueling process that forces them to reckon with the pain they’ve caused, accept responsibility, and participate in the community’s healing.

 

Each fall, the Capital Restorative Justice Project hosts a gathering in North Carolina for family members who have had a loved one murdered, family members who have had a loved one sentenced to death, and for community members to participate in Circles and to learn together about an aspect of restorative justice.

 

On North Carolina’s death row, some of the men have participated in restorative justice circles that allowed them to hear the stories of people who lost loved ones to violence. The circles encouraged them to explore the roots of their own crimes. Some people on death row say the process was life-changing, forcing them to understand the pain they caused in new ways. However, at present, only a tiny fraction of prisoners and victim family members are able to access a restorative justice process.

We envision a world in which the key questions of restorative justice are asked in every crime, especially in serious crimes that cause the most harm. We envision a system where families of murder victims have a voice in their own healing, rather than being told by the state that the death penalty will bring them “closure.” We envision a society that seeks to understand the causes and conditions of crime, and then implements evidence-based solutions to reduce its frequency. We envision a state whose response to crime is: How can we help to heal? Instead of: Who can we execute?

 



A LETTER TO LYNDA

Excerpt from Jason’s letter to the NCCADP about meeting RJ advocate Lynda Simmons

 

In October 2019, Jason Hurst wrote a heart-felt letter recalling Lynda Simmons, a woman who had shared with men on death row her powerful story of loss and restoration. This is an excerpt from that letter, published with generous permission from both Lynda and Jason.

“I would like to say that I had a full understanding of the pain I caused immediately after committing the atrocity that sent me here, but the truth is, I had no idea. At least not until my participation in the circle group and having the privilege to meet Lynda Simmons. A courageous, forgiving, amazing person, Lynda shared with us how the murder of her son completely changed her life. There was not a dry eye among us and it was then that the destruction my actions had caused began to be clear. It was as if each of us in the room were responsible for the loss of her son and we wanted to be forgiven for it.

Over a period of several weeks, she listened as each of us told her as much or as little about what brought us here as we were comfortable with, all the while offering us comfort while surely reliving the worst day of her life. That whole moving experience opened up the idea that maybe the possibility exists for me to express how remorseful I am to the family whose lives I’ve forever altered. To assure them that not only am I physically incarcerated, but after being granted a view into Lynda Simmons’ life, I hurt internally for what I’ve done as well. I want them to know that.”

 

Lynda holds a her necklace toward the camera. On it, there's a photograph of her and her son Brian, along with a small heart trinket that shares his name. In the photo, her
The last photo Lynda has of her son Brian. Read more about her story here.

Even amid the chaos of coronavirus, states still moving away from the death penalty

As we fight a global pandemic, it feels more absurd than ever before to devote the resources of any state to trying to kill people.

Colorado state capitol

This week, some much-needed good news came out of Colorado. Gov. Jared Polis signed a bill ending the death penalty and commuting the sentences of the state’s three remaining death row prisoners. His signature made Colorado the tenth state since 2007 to decide that the death penalty isn’t necessary to maintain public safety and does more to perpetuate injustice than to ensure justice. 

Right now, with Covid-19 bearing down, most states and local governments are focusing on short-term efforts to cut jail populations and release some of the scores of people who are behind bars only because they can’t afford to pay bail. But Colorado has taken a step at the other end of the spectrum, joining a national movement away from the death penalty.

As public opinion turns against the death penalty, almost of half of U.S. states no longer have the death penalty on the books. It’s past time for North Carolina to join them in abandoning this flawed and ineffective policy. 

In North Carolina, a 2019 poll found that when voters were offered a broad range of alternatives to the death penalty, only about a quarter of them favored the death penalty. And nearly three-quarters said it’s likely an innocent person has been executed in North Carolina. In the past few decades, ten people sentenced to death in North Carolina have been exonerated. Ten innocent people on death row is a good enough reason to end the death penalty on its own.

Like North Carolina, Colorado’s death penalty was racially skewed. In a state where just 4 percent of the population is African American, all three men on its death row were black. In North Carolina, more than 140 people are living under sentences of death. Sixty percent are people of color, compared with only about 30 percent of the North Carolina population.

Also like North Carolina, Colorado had become deeply uneasy about the death penalty and long ago ceased executions. The people on its death row were sitting year after year, decade after decade, waiting for an execution that was unlikely to be carried out.

Yet, even when no one’s being executed and very few people are being sentenced to death, the death penalty has an outsize effect on a state’s criminal punishment system. It adds millions in yearly costs and skews the whole system toward harsher penalties. And it allows the state to threaten vulnerable suspects with death to assure their compliance, a pressure tactic that sometimes persuades even innocent people to confess. 

As we fight a global pandemic, it feels more absurd than ever before to devote the resources of any state to trying to kill people. We sincerely hope that, once this health crisis is over, North Carolina will follow Colorado’s lead and turn to endeavors that support life rather than death.

— March 25, 2020

Echoes of Central Park 5 in NC: Children were threatened with the execution chamber to force murder confessions; decades later, two remain in prison

Christopher Bryant testifying before the N.C. Innocence Commission

The five boys were 14 and 15 years old when they were taken to the Winston-Salem police station. The cops wanted them to confess to the murder of Nathaniel Jones, a 61-year-old man who’d been beaten, robbed and left tied up on his carport, then died of a heart attack. The boys said they knew nothing about the crime.

Detectives separated the children and interrogated them hour after hour, without lawyers or their parents there to help them. Police threatened them and told them that if they confessed, they’d be allowed to go home. One detective described the process of death by lethal injection. “Hold out your arm,” the armed officer said to the child. “That’s the vein.” 

The terrified boys didn’t know that children aren’t eligible for the death penalty. Believing it was their only way out of the interrogation room, all five broke down and confessed.  A sixth child, a girl, was also interrogated by nearly a dozen officers until she agreed to falsely testify that she witnessed the boys committing the crime. The boys were convicted and sent to prison for what one judge called a “relentless, remorseless, conscienceless” crime.

You might have missed this story amid the chaos of Coronavirus, but last week, the North Carolina Innocence Commission found enough evidence to order a hearing on whether all five were wrongly convicted of Jones’ murder in 2002. A three-judge panel will now decide whether to exonerate them. 

It’s a case with eerie echoes of the Central Park Five. A psychologist called the similarities “astonishing.” However, in this case, the boys got even harsher penalties for their coerced confessions. Three of them — Christopher Bryant, Jermal Tolliver and Dorrell Brayboy — got 14 years for second-degree murder. But two brothers, Nathaniel Cauthen and Rayshawn Banner, got life without parole and are still behind bars.

The story that the Winston-Salem Journal wrote about the brothers’ sentencing in 2004 is heartbreaking to read now. Nathaniel and Rayshawn sat silently through the trial. The jury deliberated just one hour before convicting them of first-degree murder. The judge called them remorseless. And then, just before their sentence was pronounced, Nathaniel asked to speak.

“I (already) spent two years of my life in jail for something I didn’t do,” Cauthen cried, flailing his arms, his voice rising with desperation. “I can’t tell you who killed this man. It’s not my fault these people put me in a room and made me say things I didn’t do.”

With tears streaming down his face, he pointed toward prosecutors and a police detective, saying he spent his life “running from these people” who tried to blame him for things he didn’t do. He turned around and spoke to Jones’ family directly.

“I’m sorry that this man lost his life, but I can’t tell you who killed this man,” he said.

This story is a reminder that the North Carolina death penalty is often used to coerce confessions, and that it is frequently wielded against innocent people in cases with flimsy evidence.  (Read CDPL’s report about this widespread abuse of the death penalty.) 

But it’s especially egregious to discover that police are willing to use the death penalty to intimidate, coerce, and wrongly convict children.

During the Innocence Commission hearing, a detective admitted that he described the process of lethal injection to two of the boys — but, he claimed it was “not as a threat.” Only in the delusional, upside-down world of our criminal punishment system could a person make the claim that asking a terrified child to imagine his own execution is not a threat.

The death penalty is most certainly a threat, to our human decency most of all. 

— March 19, 2020

Wake DA pursues death penalty even for people with severe mental illness

Wake DA Lorrin FreemanFor nearly two decades, district attorneys in North Carolina have had discretion to decide which cases are serious enough to warrant the death penalty. In a state where hundreds of murders are committed each year, only a handful of people face capital trials. As public sentiment turns against executions, most N.C. counties haven’t put anyone on trial for the death penalty in more than a decade.

That’s what makes Wake DA Lorrin Freeman’s decisions about the death penalty so egregious. Freeman represents one of the state’s most forward-looking urban counties, yet she pursues the death penalty with the abandon of a 1990s prosecutor ignorant of pesky “modern” concepts like mental illness and racism.

Right now, Freeman is fighting to put Kendrick Gregory on trial for the death penalty — even though he’s in a psychotic state so severe that he refuses to bathe or communicate with his attorneys.

Most of the world has banned the death penalty for people with severe mental illness. In North Carolina, it’s illegal to put a person on trial who is so mentally ill that he can’t understand the proceedings, and Freeman doesn’t dispute that Gregory is acutely psychotic. Freeman’s solution? Force Gregory to take psychiatric medications so she can get her shot at sending him to death row.

In the year before the crime, Gregory was committed to a mental hospital eight times. Doctors have diagnosed him with psychosis and schizoid effective disorder, among other things. Most DAs consider severe mental illness, which impairs a person’s ability to control their actions, understand their crime, and participate in their defense, a reason not to pursue the death penalty. In theory at least, the death penalty is meant to be reserved for the worst crimes and the most culpable defendants, and someone with severe mental illness is clearly less culpable. But, apparently, not to Freeman.

It seems she has little sympathy for people with mental illness, even when they’re innocent. James Blackmon was sentenced to life in prison in 1988, after he confessed to murder while delusional. Police interviewed Blackmon over and over while he was in a mental hospital and wearing a Superman cape. Eventually, they extracted a garbled confession. In addition to claiming responsibility for a four-year-old murder, Blackmon told police he could cause earthquakes and use telepathic powers to control other people.

Blackmon didn’t know the most important details of the crime and, the evidence now shows, was almost certainly in New York at the time. A fingerprint found at the scene matched another man with a long criminal record. And when an eye witness failed to identify Blackmon in a photo lineup, police hid the report of the lineup.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of his innocence, Freeman argued last year that Blackmon should remain in prison because he did not have DNA evidence. Thankfully, the three-judge panel hearing his case disagreed with Freeman and freed Blackmon after more than thirty-five years of wrongful imprisonment. If the case were tried today, Freeman may well have sought the death penalty against Blackmon.

Since Freeman took office in 2014, Wake has sought the death penalty at trial more than any other North Carolina county. And in almost every case, the defendant has been a black man. Freeman would have voters believe she has no choice but to pursue the death penalty, but it’s simply not true. She’s making a conscious choice to put people with severe mental illness on trial for their lives, to fight to keep innocent people in prison, and to disproportionately seek the death penalty against people of color. The citizens of Wake County deserve better.

Henry McCollum & Leon Brown

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Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were intellectually disabled teenagers when they were taken from their home in rural Robeson County, coerced into confessing to a brutal murder they didn’t commit, and sentenced to death. The brothers spent 31 years in prison before DNA testing finally proved them innocent. By the time of their release in 2014, Henry was North Carolina’s longest serving death row prisoner.

Henry McCollum
Henry McCollum at a NCCADP meeting in 2019

[Read more stories of innocent people sentenced to death in North Carolina]

Henry McCollum lived in New Jersey but had come to rural North Carolina to spend time with his mother and his brother, Leon Brown. It was the autumn of 1983. Henry was 19, and Leon was just 15. Henry had been in Robeson County for a few weeks when the body of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie was discovered in a soybean field just a short distance away from his mother’s home. The little girl been raped, and suffocated. Police in the tiny town of Red Springs began interviewing local residents, searching for suspects.

Henry McCollum school photo
1976 school photo of Henry McCollum.

One police officer came across a high school student who repeated a rumor she’d heard at school: Henry McCollum, a teen from out of town, seemed suspicious and might have been involved in the crime. Henry had intellectual disabilities, which may have been why other teens felt he behaved strangely. When officers showed up at his mother’s house, Henry went to the police station voluntarily. It was evening, and a group of law enforcement officers kept him in an interrogation room until late in the night, demanding that Henry tell them about the crime, promising him that if he gave them the facts about the crime, he would be allowed to go home. After four and a half hours of questioning, Henry broke. He told the officers a story filled with details they’d given him, about a rape and murder he had nothing to do with. The officers wrote up a grisly confession and Henry, who could barely comprehend the written document, signed it. And then he asked, “Can I go home now?” He had no idea that he wouldn’t go home again for more than three decades.

As Henry invented the details of the rape, he added other characters to the scene to share responsibility for the awful crime. He said that his brother Leon had been with him, along with two friends. By coincidence, Leon and his mother were already at the police station; they’d come to wait for Henry. Police pulled Leon into another interrogation room, and extracted a confession from him too. Leon, who was more profoundly disabled than Henry, could not even read the document he signed just a half hour after Henry’s confession. It conflicted in significant ways with Henry’s account, and both confessions pointed to two other boys who police later determined could not possibly have been present. Yet, those two confessions — coerced, conflicting, and patently false — became the evidence that prosecutors would use to send two innocent, poor, black, disabled teenagers to death row.

Henry and Leon quickly retracted their confessions, but it was too late. In 1984, a jury sentenced both of them to death. In 1991, they won a new trial, and Leon was resentenced to life in prison. However, Henry was again sentenced to death. His confession was, once again, the key piece of evidence. During his years on death row, Henry’s case became notorious. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia pointed to the brutality of Henry’s crime as a reason to support capital punishment. During North Carolina legislative elections in 2010, Henry’s face showed up on political flyers as an example of a brutal rapist and child killer who deserved to be executed. Henry continued to proclaim his innocence to anyone who would listen.

Finally, Leon wrote to the N.C. Innocence Commission, a state agency that agreed to investigate the case. What they uncovered was shocking. Investigators knew at the time that fingerprints found at the scene didn’t match Henry or Leon, but they never compared the fingerprints to other possible suspects. And just a few weeks after Sabrina Buie’s killing, another young woman was raped and murdered in Red Springs. Joann Brockman, 18, had also been raped, asphyxiated, and left in a field. The culprit was a man named Roscoe Artis, who had a long record of serious assaults against women. Artis lived next to the field where Sabrina’s body was found, yet he had never been investigated as a suspect in her death. The Innocence Commission staff unearthed items that had been left by Sabrina’s body — clothing, beer cans, cigarette butts — and conducted modern DNA testing. They found no DNA belonging to Henry and Leon, but on one cigarette butt, they found a perfect match with Roscoe Artis.

Based on the Commission’s overwhelming evidence of innocence, the brothers were released from prison in 2014. In 2015, then-Gov. Pat McCrory granted the brothers a full pardon of innocence. Also that year, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer cited their case as a reason to outlaw the death penalty.

Today, Henry is rebuilding his life with the help of family. Leon, whose severe disabilities were compounded by the trauma of prison, is living in an institution. Both are pursuing a civil lawsuit against the agencies that wrongly imprisoned them. Roscoe Artis remains in prison, serving a life sentence for Brockman’s murder. He has not been prosecuted for Sabrina’s murder.

Learn more:

Read the Center for Death Penalty Litigation’s in-depth story of Henry and Leon’s dramatic exoneration, read their report Saved From the Executioner

Watch this fascinating one-hour documentary about the case from Death Row Stories (Episode 8)

Read the Marshall Project’s story about what happened to the brothers after their exoneration, The Price of Innocence

Read more stories of innocent people sent to NC death row

Darryl Hunt

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Because of a single juror, Darryl Hunt was spared the death penalty for a rape and murder he did not commit. He was not spared, however, from spending 19 years in prison — ten of those after DNA evidence showed that he was not the culprit.

NC Exoneree Darryl Hunt
Darryl Hunt doing one of many media interviews in his work to end the death penalty.

[Read more stories of innocent people sentenced to death in North Carolina]

In August 1984, Darryl Hunt was an impoverished teenager in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, when police scooped him up and put him into a lineup for a crime he did not commit. A 25-year-old newspaper copy editor, Deborah Sykes, had been raped and stabbed to death while on her way to work. The killing of a young white woman sparked community outrage, and police were eager to make an arrest. A witness came forward to say he’d seen Ms. Sykes with a black man on the morning of the crime. Police created a lineup, and the witness picked Darryl. We now know that police lineups often lead to mistaken identifications and wrongful convictions. In Darryl’s case, that mistaken identification was the beginning of a saga that would lead to two decades in prison and then two decades of activism, fighting the system that had wrongly imprisoned him and so many others.

At his 1985 trial, the main evidence tying Darryl to the crime was the mistaken testimony of people who said they had seen him on the morning of the murder with Sykes or at a hotel disposing of bloody towels. Their identification of Darryl was shaky at best. Another witness, Darryl’s girlfriend, claimed he had confessed to her. She was facing her own prosecution on larceny charges and likely hoped that her testimony in Darryl’s case would result in lighter punishment. Later, she recanted her testimony against Darryl. Darryl testified that he did not know Deborah Sykes and had no involvement with the crime. Darryl was sentenced to life in prison, because of that single juror who refused to make it a unanimous vote for death.

In 1989, Darryl’s conviction was overturned because prosecutors had relied on the girlfriend’s since-recanted statements. Prosecutors offered Darryl a deal. He could be freed by pleading guilty and accepting a sentence of the five years he had already served. He refused to admit to a crime he did not commit. Darryl was retried for murder, and again sentenced to life in prison.

In 1994, scientific advances allowed for DNA testing, which revealed that the DNA of the rapist did not match Darryl’s. In a hearing about the newly discovered DNA, the state changed its story, now insisting that there was more than one assailant and that Darryl killed the victim while another man raped her. The judge ruled in the prosecution’s favor, saying the DNA evidence did not prove his innocence. Darryl remained in prison for another decade.

In 2004, after immense public pressure, the state finally ran the crime scene DNA through a database of people convicted of felonies and found a perfect match — a man who had committed a similar rape just months after Deborah Sykes’ murder. Willard Brown confessed, and Darryl was finally freed. That same year, Darryl received a rare pardon of innocence from the governor.

Darryl spent 19 years in prison after a conviction based on mistaken identification and recanted testimony.

Darryl spent 15 years in prison after his conviction was overturned and he refused a plea deal that would have allowed him to go home.

Darryl spent 10 years in prison after DNA evidence proved he had not assaulted Ms. Sykes.

Between his date of conviction and date of exoneration, 29 people were executed in North Carolina.

Darryl on the day of his exoneration in 2004. Photo by Ted Richardson

Darryl spent the rest of his life advocating to end capital punishment and ensure that no more innocent people get the death penalty in North Carolina. “If I had gotten a death sentence,” he said, “there’s no doubt in my mind I would have been executed.” He founded the Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advocating for the wrongfully convicted supporting people recently released from prison.

In a loss to us all, Darryl died in 2016. He was 51.

Learn more:

Watch the fascinating documentary about Darryl’s 19-year fight for freedom, The Trials of Darryl Hunt

Read a moving piece by Mark Rabil, the lawyer who represented Darryl for 20 years, My Three Decades with Darryl Hunt

Read this beautiful story about the end of Darryl’s life, written by his longtime friend, The Last Days of Darryl Hunt

Read an investigative series about Darryl’s case in the Winston-Salem Journal

See more stories of innocent people sentenced to death in North Carolina

NC case shines rare light on sexism in death penalty jury selection

CDPL Attorney Elizabeth Hambourger, expert on death penalty jury selection
CDPL Attorney Elizabeth Hambourger

CDPL attorney Elizabeth Hambourger has studied the ways that stereotypes affect who sits on death penalty juries in North Carolina criminal cases. In this guest post, she writes about a new case of jury bias making its way through the state’s courts.

By Elizabeth Hambourger

Until the middle of the 20th century, the law barred women from jury service. The myth was that women are weak and overly emotional, not rational enough to serve on juries.

A brief filed in late September in a North Carolina death penalty case shines a rare light on the persistence of sexist stereotypes in the legal system. Bryan Bell was sentenced to death in Sampson County in 2001. In 2010, he filed a claim under the Racial Justice Act, citing statistics that revealed a sweeping pattern of race discrimination in capital jury selection. The prosecutor in Bell’s case, Greg Butler, excluded several black citizens from Bell’s jury. Among them was an African American woman named Viola Morrow.

In response to the statistical pattern revealed by the RJA, Butler submitted a remarkable affidavit. To defend himself from the charges of race discrimination, Butler explained that he struck Morrow from the jury, not because she was black but because she was a woman. Butler said he rejected Morrow because he “was looking for a male juror and potential foreperson.” In another capital trial, Butler confessed that he excluded two women because he was “looking for strong male jurors.”

It‘s unconstitutional for a lawyer to use either race or gender as a factor in jury selection. In 1994, in J.E.B. v. Alabama, the Supreme Court rejected the very type of sexist reasoning Butler expressed in his affidavits: that women are not “strong” enough for jury service, that women are not capable of handling the leadership role of foreperson.  The Court said it would not tolerate jury strikes based on these “invidious, archaic, and overbroad” stereotypes.

In J.E.B., the justices also recognized that, if they condoned jury discrimination on the basis of gender, lawyers might use it as a way to disguise race discrimination in jury selection.  It certainly seems possible that’s exactly what Butler was trying to do when he crafted his affidavit. But whether based on race or gender, his actions were not only unacceptable but illegal.

The only way to stop such blatant discrimination is for courts to overturn convictions when it happens. Unfortunately, North Carolina appellate courts have a shameful record when it comes to policing jury discrimination: they have never overturned a single conviction on grounds that a juror was discriminated against on the basis of race or gender. But Bell’s is the unusual case in which a prosecutor openly admitted discriminating. If Butler’s affidavit doesn’t prove discrimination, what does? Nevertheless, the first court to consider the affidavit simply ignored it and upheld Bell’s conviction.

Now our state Supreme Court has an opportunity to make clear that women belong on North Carolina juries and that our state will not tolerate discrimination on the basis of misogynistic myths. Significantly, three of the seven Supreme Court justices hearing the case will be women, the most women ever to serve on our Court at once. One might well wonder whether prosecutor Greg Butler thinks these accomplished women are “strong” enough to be Supreme Court justices.  Of course, this time, they’ll be the ones judging him.

A history-making day in the North Carolina Supreme Court

The Racial Justice Act legal team

At the end of August, our movement made history. A group of talented attorneys from across the state and the nation argued before the North Carolina Supreme Court. At issue were the cases of six men and women on death row who have uncovered compelling proof that their sentences were poisoned by racial discrimination. All six filed claims under the North Carolina Racial Justice Act (RJA). Black citizens were illegally excluded from their juries. At least two defendants were tried amid public threats of lynching, and in one case those threats came from members of the jury pool. One defendant was referred to by a racial slur in open court … by the prosecutor. The evidence of racism is crystal clear.

 

Sylvia Golphin, mother of Tilmon Golphin

At Tilmon Golphin’s trial, two white members of the jury pool were overheard saying he “never should have made it out of the woods” where he fled while police were trying to arrest him for murder. Those two people were never removed from the jury pool.

 

Shirley Burns, left, and Tawana Choate, the mothers of Marcus Robinson and Quintel Augustine

At Quintel Augustine’s trial, the prosecutor wrote notes such as “blk wino” about the races of prospective jurors and then struck all the black jurors, leaving a black defendant to be sentenced to death by an all-white jury. At Marcus Robinson’s trial, prosecutors singled out black prospective jurors with demeaning questions, like whether they failed in school or knew how to read. No white jurors were asked such questions.

 

Attorney Jay Ferguson, right, with Brian Stull of the ACLU

During the arguments, attorneys for the North Carolina Attorney General’s Office did not dispute the evidence of discrimination. In fact, they admitted that racism in capital trials is serious and must be dealt with. But they asked the Supreme Court to deny the cases and leave the defendants to litigate their discrimination claims in the lower courts, which have failed for decades to root out racial discrimination in the death penalty. The RJA attorneys made a passionate argument that the state’s highest court must take on this critical issue. If it doesn’t, it will send the message that our state is willing to execute people even after overwhelming evidence of racism in their trials has come to light. The arguments concluded with Jay Ferguson’s powerful words to the justices: “If not now, when? If not you, who?”

 

RJA attorney Henderson Hill

For decades, North Carolina’s high courts have refused to acknowledge discrimination in jury selection, even though it has been blatant and endemic. “Weighing on this court’s shoulders is hundreds of years of history of discrimination against African American citizens … With all that history, how does this court respond?” Henderson Hill asked.

 

James E. Ferguson, II

“When we stand back and we take a long view of history, we’ve got to go all the way back to the days of slavery, ” civil rights leader James Ferguson, II said. “During those days, capital punishment was largely imposed upon slaves and more often than not for crimes against white people. This is the original context in which we come today.”

Ferguson said the RJA fits into our state’s history of civil rights advances followed by fierce resistance to change. Slavery was abolished, but resistance led to lynching and Jim Crow. The Supreme Court outlawed school segregation, but resistance kept schools segregated for many years after the court’s ruling. Today, the state is resisting the positive change that the Racial Justice Act sought to create and trying to execute people whose trials were poisoned by racism.

“What particularly is the role of this court, which is the leader of the judiciary in NC? It is not simply to sit and watch this change come about; it is about signaling that there is a change and taking the leadership in seeing that change come about. These are cases which present not just an opportunity for this court to lead, but we submit, they highlight and emphasize the responsibility that this court has to lead.”

RJA Attorney Cassandra Stubbs of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project

Cassandra Stubbs took on the state’s argument that evidence of racial bias in capital cases, which was exposed by the RJA, should be thrown out of court because the law was later repealed. “Never before has a state done what the state of North Carolina is attempting to do here, and never before has any court sanctioned dismissal of comparable allegations and proof of racial bias. The state’s position is, now that the Racial Justice Act has been repealed, we should forget about the evidence of discrimination and move on. But … the court cannot look away.”

It wasn’t just the attorneys who recognized the importance of these cases. Many community members turned out to support the Racial Justice Act.

 

NC Sen. Floyd McKissick, who helped make RJA law

Click here to listen to McKissick talk about the RJA on the State of Things

 

Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman, president of the NC NAACP

 

Jean Parks, left, an Asheville advocate for murder victim families, with CDPL executive director Gretchen Engel

 

The siblings of Al Harden, who is on NC death row
NC Rep. Marcia Morey
Tilmon Golphin’s uncle holding a childhood photo of Tilmon and his family

 

Now we wait for the court’s decision. We hope the justices will seize this opportunity to help create a system that lives up to its promise of equal justice for all.

 

 

 

RJA COURTROOM OBSERVER GUIDE

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Thanks for your interest in attending the historic RJA hearings on August 26th and 27th. To help you prepare for your visit, we’ve answered a few frequently asked questions below.

 

Know before you visit:

  • A government issued photo identification is required for entry into the courthouse
  • Business casual dress is preferred.
  • Talking is not permitted inside the courtroom.
  • Do not approach or walk to the front of the courtroom.
  • Cell phones must be turned off or placed on silent only.
  • Electronic devices cannot be used to take photographs or to make audio or video recordings of

    court proceedings. Violations may result in the confiscation of your electronic device.

  • No food or drinks of any kind is allowed inside the courtroom. Eating, drinking, and sleeping while

    in the courtroom is not permitted.

 

Parking and timing: The Supreme Court is located at Two East Morgan Street in downtown Raleigh. Several parking lots and decks open to the public are nearby, including parking lots and decks at:

 

  • 120 South Wilmington St.
  • 1 South Wilmington St.
  • 201 West Morgan St.
  • 222 West Hargett St.

 

We recommend an earlier arrival. On the day of the argument, you should arrive at the Court in plenty of time to pass through security, find the courtroom, and settle into your seat before the session begins. The Justice Building opens at 8:00 a.m. The courtroom, located on the third floor, opens at 8:30 a.m. Oral arguments begin at 9:30 a.m.

 

What is the North Carolina Supreme Court (NCSC): The North Carolina Supreme Court is the highest court in the state and has the final say as to issues arising under the NC Constitution, NC General Statutes, and NC common law. Where a decision of the NCSC implicates a question arising under a federal statute or the federal Constitution, the US Supreme Court may elect to grant certiorari and hear an appeal on those issues.

 

Who serves on the North Carolina Supreme Court: The North Carolina Supreme Court consists of a Chief Justice and six Associate Justices. All seven Justices are elected in statewide non-partisan races and serve staggered eight-year terms. More info on the justices can be found here.

 

What is the role of The North Carolina Supreme Court? The NCSC hears:

  • death penalty appeals directly from the North Carolina Superior Courts,
  • appeals from divided panels of the North Carolina Court of Appeals, and
  • certain discretionary appeals from unanimous panels of the North Carolina Court of Appeals

All cases before the Supreme Court are orally argued.

 

What can be expected when hearing a case at the NCSC: An opinion deciding the appeal typically follows about six months after the oral arguments, though it may take shorter or longer.

 

N.C. Racial Justice Act Timeline

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2009 The N.C. Racial Justice Act was adopted by the state legislature on a party-line vote, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed.

 

2010 In August, most people on North Carolina’s death row filed claims under the RJA, citing a study by researchers at Michigan State University showing statewide racial disparities in charging, sentencing, and jury selection decisions in capital cases tried in North Carolina between 1990-2010.

After the November elections, the Republicans took control of both houses of the General Assembly.

 

2012 The first evidentiary hearing in the state on an RJA claim is held in the case of Cumberland County’s Marcus Robinson. Following a two-week hearing, Chief Resident Superior Court Judge Gregory A. Weeks entered an order vacating Robinson’s death sentence and resentencing him to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Judge Weeks found that prosecutors struck African-American citizens from juries at over twice the rate that they struck white citizens. Judge Weeks also determined that prosecutors in Cumberland County and around the state had engaged in intentional discrimination against African-American jurors.

Just months after the Robinson decision, the newly-GOP-controlled General Assembly amended and narrowed the RJA.

Later that fall, a second RJA hearing was held in Cumberland County in the cases of three more people on death row: Quintel Augustine, Tilmon Golphin, and Christina Walters. Judge Weeks again ruled race was a significant factor in prosecutors’ peremptory strike decisions and that prosecutors had engaged in intentional discrimination against African-American citizens. He resentenced all three defendants to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Among Judge Weeks’ findings were that prosecutors used a “cheat sheet” of manufactured answers to justify striking African-American citizens from juries, and that they wrote racially-charged notes about potential black jurors, such as “blk wino – drugs” or being from a “respectable blk family” or from a “blk/high drug” area.

 

2013 In March, the State appealed Judge Weeks’ decisions in all of the Cumberland County RJA cases.

In June, the General Assembly repealed the RJA.

 

2015 In December, the North Carolina Supreme Court remanded the cases of the four Cumberland County defendants to the trial court. The Supreme Court found no specific problem with Judge Weeks’ determinations about prosecutors’ improper use of race in jury selection, but instead found that the prosecution should have been given more time to prepare its own statistical study and that the consolidated RJA case should not have combined the cases of three defendants into one hearing.

 

2016 In March, the North Carolina Supreme Court granted petitions for certiorari review in two capital cases where RJA motions were filed, but never heard in court. These cases raise the question of whether the repeal of the RJA can be applied retroactively to void claims filed prior to the repeal. The defendants in these two Iredell County cases are Rayford Burke and Andrew Ramseur.

In November, a superior court judge heard oral argument in the Cumberland County cases on the question of whether the RJA motions that previously resulted in Judge Weeks imposing life-without-parole sentences should be dismissed based on the General Assembly’s repeal of the RJA.

 

2017 In January, the superior court dismissed the RJA motions of the four Cumberland defendants.

In May, the four sought review in the North Carolina Supreme Court.

 

2018 In March, the Court granted review in the four Cumberland cases.

In July, the Cumberland defendants filed their opening briefs in the state supreme court, along with supporting amicus briefs from groups including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the NAACP of North Carolina, NC Association of Black Lawyers, prominent civil rights advocates, and a coalition of former prosecutors.

 

2019 On August 26 and 27, the Supreme Court of North Carolina will convene oral argument in the cases of the Cumberland 4 and Iredell 2.

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