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.

The N.C. Racial Justice Act: Why It Matters In Our Fight to End the Death Penalty

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Tilmon Golphin, held by his uncle, Mr Willie McCray

 

On August 26th and 27th, the NC Supreme Court heard oral arguments in six cases involving the Racial Justice Act (RJA). Here’s what you can do now to learn more and help protect RJA.

  1. Watch the oral arguments on WRAL.
  2. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter and share our posts.
  3. Spread the word. Your voice matters. Write a letter to the editor. Talk to your friends. Think local, think statewide, think about your regional newspaper, faith group, or book club. Share this site and share your thoughts on why capital punishment must come to an end. Go here for a Racial Justice Act fact sheet to help you write your letter, craft your speech, or hand out at your event.

Show up. Share. Let your voice be heard: North Carolina Must End This Racist Machinery of Death.

 

Shirley Burns Racial Justice Act
Shirley Burns, right, hugs a family friend after Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks ruled in 2012 that the trial of her son, Marcus Robinson, was so tainted by the racially influenced decisions of prosecutors that he should be removed from death row and serve a life sentence. Photo by Andrew Craft, AP

 

The Racial Justice Act Overview: 

In 2009, after several innocent black men were freed from death row, the North Carolina legislature passed the ground-breaking Racial Justice Act (RJA). The law allowed people on NC’s death row to present evidence that racial bias played a role in their death sentences. Those who could prove discrimination would be resentenced to life in prison.

The law led to a statewide study, which showed that people of color are systematically excluded from serving on capital juries at more than twice the rate of whites—along with a trove of evidence that prosecutors were purposefully striking black jurors in violation of federal law.

In 2012, the first four people to bring their RJA cases to court won and were resentenced to life in prison because of discrimination in jury selection. But their victory was quickly snatched away, even though the state was unable to refute the evidence of discrimination. The state appealed the decisions and the North Carolina Supreme Court, finding procedural errors in the first hearings, remanded the cases for new proceedings. 

In 2013, the North Carolina General Assembly voted to repeal the RJA. Governor Pat McCrory signed the repeal into law. Soon after, a court dismissed the four cases that had been remanded for new hearings, saying they were no longer entitled to hearings because of the law’s repeal. The four defendants were returned to death row.

From death to life to death again.

Now, the N.C. Supreme Court must make a key decision.

On August 26 and 27, the state Supreme Court heard six cases under the RJA. The Court will be asked to decide whether those first four defendants are entitled to reinstatement of their life-without-parole sentences, or whether they should get new hearings to present compelling evidence of race discrimination in their cases. In two other cases, the Court will decide whether people on death row who filed claims under the RJA will still get the chance to present their evidence in court, even after the law’s repeal.

Of the six defendants, three were sentenced to death by all-white juries; one by a jury with one person of color. This mirrors state-wide discrepancies. At the time of the RJA’s passage in 2009, North Carolina was 34 percent non-white, but almost half of North Carolina’s death row prisoners had been sentenced by juries with no meaningful minority representation.

As the Court considers these six cases, the essential question is this: Will North Carolina confront overwhelming evidence of racial bias in the death penalty and protect the constitutional rights of jurors and defendants? Or will it throw away a mountain of evidence without addressing it, sending a message that discrimination doesn’t matter and thereby eroding the public’s trust in the system?


“It hurt my heart,” she said, “to hear that evidence of racism . . . . I don’t understand why African Americans can’t serve on juries just like white people.” Mr. Augustine’s mother sat in the courtroom as the prosecutor struck one black juror after the other. Ten years later in an RJA hearing, Ms. Choate returned to the courtroom to learn about the patterns of discrimination in her son’s case and in others across North Carolina.

 

The Evidence:

The RJA study, conducted by researchers at Michigan State University, analyzed N.C. capital cases from 1990-2010. It found that qualified black jurors were struck from capital juries more than twice as often as white jurors. The researchers controlled for factors, and the disparity was attributable only to race.

In addition, defendants found direct evidence of discrimination such as prosecutors’ notes about potential jurors’ races. The notes about black jurors who were struck included descriptions such as “blk wino” and “thug.” They also found documents from a training session, in which N.C. district attorneys were taught to strike black jurors for preposterous reasons such as their hairstyles, clothing, or body language. 

The History:

Black people have been denied the right to serve on juries throughout American history. Many black men in America, in spite of their innocence, have been convicted and sentenced to death with charges brought by white prosecutors, tried in front of white judges, and before all-white juries. While citizens of color were once kept off juries by openly racist laws and policies, the discrimination is now more difficult to detect. Prosecutors use peremptory strikes to remove black jurors, and are often not required to provide any explanation for why they struck those jurors. 

Why It Matters:

The right to a jury of one’s peers is a fundamental Constitutional right. For most Americans, serving on a jury is, along with voting, the most direct way to participate in democracy. Studies also show that diverse juries deliberate more thoroughly and are less likely to convict innocent people.

Evidence of Discrimination in Each Case:

Despite a prohibition against prosecutors using peremptory strikes in a race-conscious manner, all of the defendants obtained evidence of racial bias in jury selection. Many of the cases also included deeply troubling evidence of other forms of racial discrimination during legal proceedings. These include:

  • During jury selection in Tilmon Golphin’s case, a prospective African American juror heard two white jurors saying that Mr. Golphin “should have never made it out of the woods” [when he was taken into police custody]. The African American juror was struck, in part, because he reported overhearing these statements. It is unknown whether the white jurors who made the comments served on Mr. Golphin’s jury. Read Tilmon Golphin’s full brief.
  • “In front of an all-white jury, the prosecutor explicitly drew attention to [Rayford] Burke’s race. In closing arguments, while urging jurors to find [Mr.] Burke guilty, the prosecution referred to [Mr.] Burke as a ‘big black bull.’Read Rayford Burke’s full brief.
  • In the courtroom in which Andrew Ramseur was tried, there was “crime scene tape” cordoning off the four rows behind him; his family, including his elderly grandfather, was literally required to sit in the back of the courtroom despite no reason being provided. Counsel moved to have the crime scene tape removed. After the Court initially denied the request, the tape was eventually removed, but Mr. Ramseur’s family was still required to sit in the back of the courtroom rather than behind him, without explanation. Read Andrew Ramseur’s full brief.
  • The prosecutor in Quintel Augustine’s case wrote racially-charged handwritten notes about prospective jurors. He described a Black juror who drank as a “blk. Wino” but a white juror who drank as a “drinks–country boy–OK.” He described a Black female juror as “ok” because she was from a “respectable blk family.”  Read Quintel Augustine’s full brief.
  • During jury selection in Marcus Robinson’s case, the prosecutor asked a Black high school graduate whether he had repeated any grades or had trouble reading – questions he had asked no white juror. The prosecutor later testified that he recognized that he harbors implicit racial biasesRead Marcus Robinson’s full brief.
  • At Christina Walters’ trial, the prosecutor struck 10 of 14 potential black jurors, a strike rate of 3.6 times that of potential white jurors. Her explanations for why she struck black jurors did not hold up to scrutiny. For example, the prosecutor struck one black juror because he “did not feel like a victim” after his car had been broken into and a CD player stolen. Yet, she kept two white jurors who minimized the impact of their experience as victims of minor property crimes. Read Christina Walters’ full brief.

What Friends of the Court (otherwise known as Amici) Are Saying:

NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund (full brief here)

“After a long and tragic history of entrenched racial discrimination in the administration of North Carolina’s death penalty, this Court can pave a new path for North Carolina’s judicial system that demonstrates an unequivocal commitment to fundamental fairness and racial equality. Especially with respect to juries, which are a crucial exercise of citizenship that is essential to the integrity of the judicial process, there simply should be no tolerance for the taint of racial bias. 

[..]

No act by the North Carolina Legislature can wish away what we now know to be true from overwhelming statistical evidence: racial discrimination impermissibly influences the administration of North Carolina’s death penalty.” 



ACLU Capital Punishment Project, ACLU of North Carolina,

North Carolina Advocates for Justice, and NC Conference of the NAACP (full brief here)

Whether our state courts will tolerate epidemic levels of racial bias and discrimination in jury selection is a question of grave importance to both our State and the perceived legitimacy of the criminal justice system.

In light of the evidence uncovered under the RJA, there can be no real question about whether race played a role in defendants’ capital trials. The only question is whether this Court will squarely face the record and respond in a way that honors our Constitution.



Promise of Justice Initiative and

12 Former Judges, Justices and Law Enforcement Officials (full brief here)

Capital punishment is now constrained to a dwindling handful of locations, reserved not for the most culpable offenders, but for those unlucky few prosecuted under anachronistic circumstances. In North Carolina, whatever standard method of measurement used, it is now beyond dispute that use of the death penalty is unusual. Indeed, use of capital punishment has dropped to such low levels that it would be hard to argue that it fulfills an indispensable role in the criminal justice system. And yet, the death penalty has an out-sized effect on our confidence in the fair administration of punishment.

Experience has taught us that while many prisoners undergo significant transformation, the death penalty leaves no room for the possibility of redemption. It thereby diminishes the dignity of human life that it was designed to enhance.

In every generation, there are those who counsel deliberation, patience, and a measured approach to the evolution of the standards of decency. But it comes at a cost: delay in addressing the constitutionality of capital punishment serves to further undermine and erode confidence in the administration of the system that capital punishment was once enacted to protect. The time has come to consider whether the system of capital punishment that currently operates in North Carolina violates the evolving standards of decency.” 


North Carolina Supreme Court

 

What Other North Carolinians Are Saying:

Shirley Burns, mother of son on death row (full article here)

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.



James E. Ferguson II, renowned NC lawyer and civil rights champion (full article here)

The one thing that could not be repealed was the evidence that was brought out in the cases that we tried under the Racial Justice Act. We showed that racism has been a defining factor in jury selection in capital cases. So, the repeal of the act doesn’t change the facts. Our courts have the power, when racism is demonstrated as it has been under the Racial Justice Act, to take action and make sure that we don’t have people going to the death chamber because race played a role in jury selection or any other aspect of the case. I hope they will use their authority to ensure a more fair system, one that is not tainted by racial prejudice.



James Coleman, Duke Law Professor (full article here)

Study after study has shown that North Carolina prosecutors exclude qualified African-Americans from juries at twice to three times the rate they exclude white citizens. Prosecutors’ notes sometimes reflect their distrust of black jurors. In one case, for example, a prosecutor tagged African-American jurors with notations such as “blk wino,” and “blk/high drug area.” This is not an isolated occurrence.

My point is not that North Carolina prosecutors are racists or bigots; most likely intend to follow the law. But we now accept as fact that implicit bias affects human decisions, regardless of our legal training or good intentions. However, in a world in which the practice of excluding African-Americans from jury service is longstanding and tacitly accepted by our courts, such bias is persistent.



Floyd B. McKissick, Jr., NC State Senator (full article here)

The RJA was only the second law of its kind in the nation and it was the first to address race discrimination in jury selection. The RJA established that no person in North Carolina could be capitally-prosecuted or executed if racial bias was a significant factor in the case. The law was sorely needed in the wake of several exonerations of African-Americans wrongfully convicted and even sentenced to death by all-white or nearly all-white juries.

UNEQUAL JUSTICE

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North Carolina death penalty reforms Nathan Bowie
Nathan Bowie at 4. He has lived on death row since 1993, for a crime committed at 19.

North Carolina death row is the fifth largest in the nation, with more than 140 men and women. About three-quarters of them were sentenced in the 1990s, before a slate of reforms transformed the North Carolina death penalty. They were tried and sentenced to death before basic protections were written into the law, and when public attitudes about the death penalty were far more favorable. Under modern laws and standards, almost none of today’s North Carolina death row prisoners would have gotten the death penalty.

People tried before 2001, when North Carolina’s death penalty reforms began to take effect, had no agency to ensure them a trained capital attorney. They weren’t guaranteed the right to see all the evidence in the prosecutor’s case file. Procedures had not yet been created for recording confessions and preventing mistaken identifications in police lineups. Also during those years, a court mandate required prosecutors to seek death for virtually every first-degree murder. It was the only such requirement in the nation, and it led North Carolina to have one of the nation’s highest death sentencing rates during the 1990s. Dozens of people were sent to North Carolina death row each year.

Under today’s laws, the system remains imperfect and unjust. But North Carolina death penalty reforms have at least reduced the capital punishment’s reach. N.C. juries now sentence an average of less than one person a year to death. There are just a handful of death penalty trials each year.

Yet, more than 100 people sentenced under outdated laws remain on North Carolina death row, year after year, decade after decade. They are trapped a system that has moved on, but refuses to reckon with its past. The people on North Carolina’s death row received Unequal Justice.

Watch the story of Nathan Bowie, who has spent more than 25 years on death row for a crime committed as a teenager:


Read the Center for Death Penalty Litigation’s 2018 report, Unequal Justice, about North Carolina death row:


For more on North Carolina death row, read the Intercept’s “Relic of Another Era”: Most People on North Carolina’s Death Row Would Not Be Sentenced to Die Today:

Parker, the former prosecutor, did not attend the execution of Ronald Frye in 2001. “I gave my ticket to the arresting officer,” he said. Parker said he had developed a certain level of affection for Frye by then. “I thought he has what’s coming to him, but I wasn’t gonna go watch him die.”

I asked Parker if he would feel satisfied if Nathan Bowie were to be executed today, 25 years after he was convicted. Would he consider it justice? Parker paused. “I really haven’t given it much thought,” he said, adding, “I did my job.” He doesn’t miss it. He’s happily retired, playing golf a few times a week, he told me. “I don’t think about it much anymore. I leave it alone.”

RIPPLE BEYOND THE ROW

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We like to think that the death penalty is capable of surgically removing problem people from our society, neatly ending the pain of murder. But the reality is that, with every execution, a new cycle of pain and grieving begins. It ripples outward to all kinds of people who are never discussed when the death penalty is debated in courts and legislatures. To the families of those executed, their parents, their siblings, and their blameless children. To the prison wardens and guards, who spend years caring for a person, only to be forced to participate in killing them. To the defense attorneys, who wonder for years afterward what they might have done differently to save their clients’ lives, blaming themselves for every actual or perceived mistake. To the jurors who know they are responsible for another human being’s death, and wonder how another person or higher power might one day judge their decision. Whether they recognize it or not, they too become victims of the cruelty of capital punishment.

Many of these pieces were originally published on our blog. Follow it for more stories and news about the N.C. death penalty.


LAW STUDENT

Author Humza Hussain. Photo provided by Humza.

Arrival

The visitation room at Raleigh Central Prison is small, dark and oppressive. It is divided in half by a thick glass sheet encased in a rusted steel frame. The tiny space is stiflingly hot. If I stretch my arms, I can touch both concrete walls at the same time. The glare from the overhead light makes it difficult to see through the glass, while the constant screeching and clanging of metal doors outside the room makes it hard to hear anything at all. A small grate at the bottom of the glass sheet requires you to crane your neck to speak to the person on the other side.

The purpose of all the security is to prevent any physical contact between an incarcerated person and their visitor. Despite numerous reports that have exposed the prisons in North Carolina as being grossly underfunded, it was clear that the state spared no expense in securing the visitation rooms for people on death row.

In June 2018, I came to Durham, North Carolina as a summer intern for the Center for Death Penalty Litigation. The Center has been a leading force in dramatically reducing the number of executions in the state. I had worked with people in prison before, but never with men and women who were condemned to death. For most people, the death penalty is merely an abstract intellectual fascination, something to be debated in introductory philosophy classes or amongst friends and family whenever a particularly gruesome story made it onto the news. While I have never truly believed that there are people amongst us who are so evil, and so irredeemable, that they must be scrubbed from the earth as expeditiously as possible, I took this job, in part, because I wanted to see for myself who these people were. I was interested in getting to know the men and women on death row as well as the lawyers who worked every day to protect them from execution.

On this particular morning, I came to meet two people on death row that the Center had been working with for years, named Rico and Jason. Both men were incarcerated in their 20’s and had already served over a decade on death row. I took a seat on the metal stool in my side of the room, took out my new legal pad and began writing some notes.

Rico

After a few minutes of waiting, Rico entered the visitation room in a dark red jumpsuit. He is a large man, at least 6 feet tall and 220 lbs. He greets me with a warm smile and apologizes for making me wait. I feel at ease immediately. After discussing his case for a few minutes, Rico starts to tell me about the Raleigh Central Death Row Annual Basketball Tournament.

The tournament was started 15 years ago by a man who has since been executed. The men compete each year as a way to break up the monotony of life on death row and to honour their deceased compatriot. North Carolina’s death row is one of the few, if not the only, death rows in the country that allows people to play in an organized basketball tournament. Rico describes the tournament as a small mercy. Even when he is unwell or not particularly interested in playing, he would never even consider sitting out. He feels it would be wrong not to play since death row people all across the country would relish the opportunity to play an organized sport.

The tournament consists of a regular season, followed by knock-out elimination games until only one team remains. The prize is a bottle of body wash — a luxury worth competing for.

Rico tells me about his most recent game. His team starts out playing very well. They are tenacious on defense and are moving the ball well on offence. Spectators, the other people on death row, begin predicting an easy victory for Rico’s team. Then the opposing team makes a game-shifting substitution. Eddie-B steps onto the court. Eddie-B is 65 years-old, he is the oldest man in the tournament, and has competed every single year that the tournament has been running.

For some men, the tournament is the most important event of the year. This is perhaps no truer than for Eddie-B, who talks about the tournament all year long- visualizing and practicing his mid-range jump-shot. The other men know how much this game means to Eddie-B. He can’t jump or run like the other guys, his vision is fading and he has nagging knee and back pain. He moves gingerly up and down the court. But what Eddie-B does have is a picture perfect jump-shot.

The moment he steps on the court, the crowd of spectators explodes into chants of EDDIE-B, EDDIE-B, EDDIE-B. The tone of the game has changed drastically. The score no longer matters, what is important is that Eddie-B gets the ball. After a few trips up the court, the point guard runs a play for Eddie-B. Using a screen and roll, Eddie-B gets free and receives a perfectly-timed chest pass. He squares up to shoot. His defender feigns a legitimate effort at blocking the shot while purposefully giving Eddie-B just enough room to get off an uncontested jump-shot. The ball leaves Eddie-B’s hands and lands perfectly into the bottom of the net. The crowd explodes. The crowd bangs on the bleachers with their hands, they yell, and jump up and down in excitement as Eddie-B jogs back on defence, a cool smile on his face.

They continue to let him shoot and score, masking their excitement with devastation when each shot goes in. Eddie-B continues to hit shot after shot and Rico and his team go on to lose the game and are eliminated from the tournament.

The death row unit of the prison will spend the next few weeks listening to Eddie-B breakdown every shot he hit. He will tell them every trivial detail of his thought-process during the game, about how the defense was running towards him but he did not hesitate, kept his composure, and scored. They won’t interrupt him or brush him off. They let him tell his story over and over again. The basketball game is spiritual for him. Some guys have religion, others read and write poetry, but for Eddie-B, this is his salvation. No one would dare take this away from him. They will let him live in his moment of glory even as he talks during their favourite television program, or as they read their books. They let Eddie-B leave death row and reimagine himself as an athlete and a superstar.

We get a knock on the door followed by a guard yelling that time is up. We say our goodbyes. Rico puts his hand up against the glass and I press my own hand up against his on the opposite side of the glass. He is escorted away by the guards.

Alone in the room, I realize that I was so enraptured by Rico’s story that I forgot that I was in a hot, rusty, death row visitation room. I gather my notes and pack my bag. I have an hour to wait before my next meeting with my next client, Jason.

Jason

I spend the hour in my car before heading back to the visitation room to meet with Jason. He is already waiting for me on the other side of the glass. Jason has a long beard and big brown eyes. He is extremely soft spoken, and disarmingly endearing. He speaks as if he is choosing every word carefully. I can tell he is excited to meet me and really wants to make a positive first impression. I share this sentiment. We exchange pleasantries and I give him a few updates about his case. Then Jason steers the conversation towards the man in the cell next to his.

His neighbour’s name is Richard, he is 40 years-old and has been on death row for 20 years. Jason tells me that Richard is very mentally ill. Richard often doesn’t know where he is or what he should be doing. In the past few years he has gained a tremendous amount of weight and has swollen to 300 pounds — he is almost unrecognizable to when he first entered the prison. His mental health has been deteriorating steadfastly. It is not uncommon for Richard to defecate himself or urinate all over the floor of his cell. Often, he doesn’t leave his cell for days or get out of bed for more than a few hours at a time. He has no friends and no contacts outside of prison. Jason does what he can to make Richard’s life easier; he cleans his cell, encourages him to exercise, engages him in conversation and speaks to the staff about Richard’s welfare. Jason insists that Richard should not be on death row, but in some kind of facility where he can get his needs met.

He asks me if I know anyone who would be willing to correspond with Richard, preferably someone who knows how to communicate effectively with someone with a significant illness. Since Richard cannot read or write, Jason offers to read the letter to Richard and help him draft a response. I tell him that I will see if I can find someone. Jason insists that it would not be a very serious commitment, but just enough so that Richard could have some sort of healthy relationship and allow him to feel that he has a friend. Again, I assure Jason that I will try to find someone willing to correspond with Richard. Jason seems relieved, and thanks me several times.

While a person’s sentence begins with the loss of virtually all of their liberties, rights, and independence, it then becomes something much more nefarious. Men and women and death row are in a constant existential struggle not to be forgotten. While everyone else’s life moves forward, creating memories and experiencing life, they remain incarcerated. Stuck in a cell, day after day after day. They have to fight against feeling worthless, and try to preserve their belief that their lives have value. Jason is worried that Richard will feel forgotten and lose his desire to live. By cleaning up after Richard and looking out for him, Jason tries to show Richard that his life has meaning, and that his wellbeing matters to at least one person.

Men and women in state and federal prisons, especially those on death row, have an endless list of problems. Many of these issues involve being mistreated by guards, being denied proper nutrition, or the inability to get medical care. Whenever I have visited a client in prison, without fail, the entire hour is spent trying to resolve some of these problems. It is not uncommon for me or one of my colleagues to spend the entire legal visit working out the best way for the client to resolve seemingly minute problems like getting a pair of toenail clippers so that they can trim their toenails which have grown so long that they have become intolerably painful. This was the first meeting with someone where they focused nearly the whole visit trying to get me to help someone else, let alone another man on death row.

But these visits are more than just an opportunity for people to get legal help; they are also the only opportunity for them to see a fresh face, and hear new ideas and perspectives. Speaking with visitors offers the people a glimpse of what the world is like on the outside. Visitation hours are invaluable to men and women on death row.

This was likely to be the only contact Jason would have with someone outside of prison for weeks. With this hour, Jason tried his best to persuade me to find a pen-pal for Richard so that Richard might feel less lonely.

Almost as soon as we finish speaking about Richard, the correctional officers come and whisk him away. Jason puts his palm against the glass, and I place my palm opposite his on the other side. Once again I sit alone in the visitation room.

Death Row

Society at large has spent the last two decades telling Jason and Rico that they are not worthy of life, let alone comfort, kindness, or basic decency. They have been denied adequate food, any physical contact with their families or loved ones, and proper medical care. Yet they have refused to let the consistent, unending apathy and disregard for their wellbeing stop them from trying to be kind to others. They will not condemn their peers despite being condemned themselves. Whatever it is within us that makes us want to protect and help each other has not been extinguished in Jason and Rico.

These stories do not form an argument that because people do nice things, that they should be absolved of their wrongdoings. They are instead a glimpse into the complexity of humanity, and they inspire the idea that no one can be reduced to one identity, one thing, one moment, or one act. As these stories show, sentencing people to death ensures that in our effort to wipe out evil from the world, we invariably wipe out beauty as well. These stories are profound because they remind us that kindness and humanity exist even in the darkest places in our society, including a death row unit in a state prison. They show us that even the “worst amongst us” can still represent the best amongst us.

I doubt that Jason and Rico even remember telling me these stories and I am certain that they would never imagine that they would be interesting enough to write down. But these stories are impactful, not because they are heroic or because they are unimaginable acts of kindness, but because they disrupt the narratives that we hold about people on death row — the same narratives that cause us to spend millions of dollars to build fantastic prisons and to secure visitation rooms with steel beams and concrete, and to justify spending millions more in legal fees to see that these people are killed at the hands of the state.

The death penalty has never been exclusively used against people convicted of the worst offenses. In an effort to achieve justice through state executions we have killed innocent people, mentally ill people and abused and broken people. There is no reason to believe that we will ever be able to build a system where only those who “deserve” to die are executed. As long as humans judge guilt and innocence, irreversible errors will be made. But even if we could perfect the death penalty, should that even be our goal?

I believe that instead of trying to create a just society, we should instead be working to create a merciful society. Mercy stands on a higher moral grounding than justice. While the death penalty rejects a belief in redemption and restoration, mercy preserves it. Mercy creates room for people to perform small acts of kindness like giving another incarcerated person the chance to feel like a basketball star or assuring their neighbouring cellmate that their life has value. Where justice under the death penalty promises more death, pain and suffering- mercy offers a chance that something good can be salvaged from the wreckage. It is through mercy that we can save others, and in doing so, hopefully, save ourselves.

Leaving

After my meetings with Jason and Rico I leave the visitation room for the day and walk out of the prison. The fresh air and the warm sun feel intense. As I drive back to the Center, I think of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s quote:

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

 

Humza Hussain is a student at Queen’s University Faculty of Law in Kingston, Ontario. Humza interned at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham, North Carolina, the summer of 2018. An earlier version of this essay was posted on January 27, 2019 on Medium and titled: The Worst Among Us.


MITIGATION SPECIALIST

Tessa Hale is a former mitigation specialist. She is now the Associate Director at the Carolina Justice Policy Center.

 

Mitigation work, often all at once, in the same moment or day, both haunted and healed me.

I am an attorney by training, but had the privilege of working as a mitigation specialist before moving on to work at a criminal justice reform nonprofit. After working at the ACLU Capital Punishment Project, I began working independently under the mentorship of the mitigation specialist there, who once confided in me that she was drawn to the work by her belief that everyone is broken. I never forgot that: everyone is broken. My mentor said she was fascinated by finding and compassionately reaching towards the broken points of her clients, ultimately finding the light in between them.

I believe that for many of us who do death penalty work, it is our own brokenness (or rather, awareness of that brokenness) that draws us to explore that of others.

As advocates, we are haunted by the horrific traumas our clients have experienced and if we are lucky, we are healed by witnessing the joy and the beauty that can emerge amid suffering. I know this was true for me.

I was in the first few days of my second semester in law school when the Haitian earthquake hit. The disaster did not strike some distant, abstract place for me: as a first-generation Haitian-American, it struck home. For days, I didn’t know if the relatives with whom I had spent idyllic childhood summers within the mountains, on the island beaches, or learning about the past mischief of older relatives were dead or alive. I recall being in my constitutional law class the day after the quake, stepping outside to take panicked phone calls while my classmates discussed decades-old case law at their desks. A beloved relative had been crushed under the rubble of his house. He had just entered remission from cancer and was now dead. I later learned that while I sat in class, many of my relatives had been freeing themselves from fallen buildings and earth or frantically searching the island, enveloped by the smell of dead bodies, to find loved ones.

And yet, I was able to heal from that experience for many reasons.  I had a partner in a stable, loving relationship who supported me.  I had the resources to go to therapy.  I had a pastor who sat with me every week to sort through the questions that threatened my spirituality.  I was privileged enough that the trauma I had endured did not threaten my professional life; I had mentors who had counseled other students through managing the rigors of the legal profession while also managing personal crises.  I had a strong safety net to catch me when I fell. For my clients, they had no safety net; my clients were hanging on by a single, frayed thread.

The idiom that people need to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” after a traumatic experience is significantly more difficult to apply to my clients. Sometimes it is impossible to apply to them. Metaphorically, they have never owned a boot; no one they know has a boot or owns shoelaces. When they fall, they have no means to pick themselves up, and neither does anyone they know. Even if they knew who to ask for help, they are often so damaged by poverty or ashamed of the skeletons in their closets that they think the better option is to help themselves in maladaptive ways. Putting on a different kind of boot, pulling on a broken strap. And, assuming they are guilty (they are not always guilty), they ruin other peoples’ lives in the ways that they have learned from the people around them.

Most often, our clients have never had the social or cultural capital to survive their own trauma or to successfully navigate the world.  They had no safety net. This was a big problem for my first mitigation client. He loved his mother, the person who had failed him the most, so much that he was terrified to admit to himself that she had thwarted nearly all of his opportunities to succeed. He blamed himself for his trauma.

On the day of this client’s plea hearing, the victim’s mother stood up in court to read her victim impact statement. She looked at my client and told him that if her murdered daughter had known what he was going through, she would have fed and clothed him. She said that she hoped he would ask God to forgive him so he could go to heaven and meet her daughter. The reason this was important to her was so her daughter could tell him herself that she forgave him, because that is the type of person she was.

My client bowed his head and cried. In that moment, I felt relief for him. I knew that these were tears he had been afraid to cry for years because he thought he needed to be someone or something else to survive his own life. When the plea hearing was over, I felt numb. My mentor took me to a restaurant corner booth so I could cry and process the experience.

I watched the media coverage on the case when I got home. One local paper said that my client showed no remorse. He had clearly bowed his head, taken off his glasses, and wiped tears away. No newspaper mentioned anything about the victim’s mother’s miraculous decision to forgive my client.

As a mitigation specialist, I saw the very depths of both the fragility and the strength of the human spirit, and that was a privilege. But of course, there is no erasing the pain I came across during deep dives into the trauma of others. There is no erasing the pain of the families and loved ones I sat with who reluctantly told me their deepest darkest secrets out of fear that their loved one would be executed if they did not.

Two years ago, around the birth of my first child, I began to look for a job that wouldn’t leave me heartbroken at the end of each day. Indigent defense in North Carolina is grossly underfunded, which is a common problem across the country. In some cases, I was asked to stop seeing a client completely or as frequently for budgetary reasons, regardless of their needs at the time or what was happening in the case. I made a few visits for free even though I could not afford it. I worried that prioritizing my own life would cost someone else his. I realized that once my son was born this would not be sustainable.

In short, I couldn’t take it anymore.

And yet, even still, I’m able to look back to my mitigation days with love. I hold on tight to the moments where I saw beauty and strength emerge from the rubble. I looked at my clients every day and thought “There but for the grace of God go I.”  And ultimately, little by little, I tried to hold their hands, understand their stories, and go with them in whatever ways I could.

 

B. Tessa Hale is an attorney and graduate of the University of North Carolina School of Law in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She is currently a staff attorney at Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Advocates for Children’s Services and formerly the Associate Director at the Carolina Justice Policy Center in Durham.


DEFENSE ATTORNEY

 

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

 

By Gretchen M. Engel

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.


DEFENSE ATTORNEY + SPOKEN WORD ARTIST

 

The Carolina Justice Policy Center’s Poetic Justice was not only educational, it was also a profoundly moving experience for both the audience and speakers. This powerful event paired spoken word artists with criminal justice advocates to tell true stories from the criminal justice system. Topics explored by poets and advocates ranged from the death penalty to juvenile justice to bail reform to racial injustice.

One of CJPC’s many powerful speakers was Elizabeth Hambourger, an attorney at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation. She was paired with spoken word artist Blaize the Poet, who performed beautifully about Hambourger’s work. Both are pictured above, during a warm embrace following Blaize the Poet’s performance.

Speaking about the death penalty, Hambourger reflected, “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. Even before the murder there is pain. Murders are born of pain. I have now gotten to know a lot of people who have committed murder. And, in a lot of ways, they’re a lot like the people you and I meet out here every day. But almost uniformly, every single person on death row experienced childhood trauma. And it’s one thing to hear the word ‘trauma’ or ‘child abuse’ or even ‘sexual abuse’ and it’s another to know the things I now know about what happens to some children in their own homes while they’re growing up.”

The need for healing from such trauma is not only limited to clients on death row. It also extends to those who get second-hand exposure to this trauma through working with families and others whose lives are transformed through the death penalty. Art has long been a recognized method of healing, and spoken word poetry clearly has this capacity to heal.

Watch the video below to hear Elizabeth and Blaize’s extraordinary words.

 


ON JURORS

Kristin Collins is the associate director of public information at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation

 

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, in 2014, McCollum was exonerated. New DNA testing proved another man guilty, and McCollum blameless.  After 30 years on death row, McCollum was free.

At the time of McCollum’s exoneration, 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.

Even now, I am still learning from his case. In the spring and summer of 2018, 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 crime scene 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.

 

Kristin Collins has been a writer and researcher at CDPL since 2012. This piece was also published in the News & Observer.


DEFENSE ATTORNEY

My clients are no more or less human than myself

In June 1989, my client Leo Edwards was the last man in Mississippi to be executed in a gas chamber. I watched as Leo’s head flapped uncontrollably against an iron post for several minutes before he was pronounced dead.

As I watched him struggle to die, I believed that Leo was guilty of the crimes for which he was charged — murdering a man during a robbery spree following his escape from the Louisiana State Penitentiary. I did not then, and do not now, excuse his crimes.

However, I also believed that, like so many of the clients I have represented during three decades working on behalf of condemned men and women, Leo was sentenced to die by a flawed system in which the rules were openly flaunted by the prosecution. Had the system been fair, I do not think he would have been sentenced to die.

Leo Edwards was prosecuted by the long-serving elected district attorney, Ed Peters, who had a reputation for striking African-American prospective jurors from jury service. Indeed, Peters admitted in a newspaper article in July 1983 that, when he was presented with blacks on a jury panel his philosophy was to “get rid of as many” as he could. Peters said blacks were less law-enforcement oriented than whites. Peters later testified that he exercised that philosophy at Leo Edwards’ trial, resulting in the all-white jury that sentenced Leo, a poor black man, to death.

This clear racial bias was never addressed because Leo’s case was too far along by 1987, when the U.S. Supreme Court set new standards for reviewing claims of race discrimination in jury selection. But for a bit of poor timing, I am confident that Leo would have been awarded a new trial. The fact that Leo died while other condemned men were pardoned was completely arbitrary.

They have killed and so they deserve to die, the standard reasoning goes.

However, my career has taught me that executions say less about the criminals than they do about us, the society that carries them out. The system reflects our biases and blind spots. Just like us, it is susceptible to error and prejudice and, sometimes, an indiscriminate desire for revenge. Like our country, it favors the privileged and takes the heaviest toll on the poor and mentally ill.

As a young lawyer starting out in Mississippi, I had little competition for capital defense work. At that time, attorneys appointed to represent poor capital defendants were paid a maximum of $1,000 per case, no matter how much time they spent. Occasionally, we recruited a large law firm from New York or Washington D.C. to represent a death row inmate for free. Most often, death row inmates were poorly represented by attorneys with little time or interest in their cases.

Trying to stem the tide of executions was an unending battle, in which we were vastly outmatched. Some of my clients were picked for execution because of my mistakes, or the mistakes of other attorneys. My client Edward Earl Johnson, who was just 17 years old at the time of his crime, was executed despite my doubts about his guilt. There seemed to be grave injustices in every case, but no rhyme or reason why some lived and some died.

When I arrived in North Carolina in 1989, then one of the leading death sentencing states in the nation, things were much the same.

During the past 25 years, I have worked alongside a team of dedicated people to win many important victories and reforms. Five death-sentenced men have been exonerated in North Carolina. Many other clients have been saved from execution because of serious injustices in their cases. New laws ensure that defendants now receive an adequate defense and have rights to examine the evidence against them. One or two people a year are now sentenced to die in North Carolina, down from an average of 25 a year in the 1990s. No one has been executed since 2006.

Yet, none of those victories has erased the problems at the root of our capital punishment system. Racial bias still taints trials. Defendants are still chosen for death arbitrarily. Those sentenced to die are still overwhelmingly poor and mentally ill. Judges and lawyers, including myself, still make mistakes. Innocent people are still imprisoned.

No matter how many reforms we enact, these basic facts will never change. Our capital punishment system is created and carried out by human beings, who are by their nature imperfect and prone to error.

Over the years, I have gotten to know many of my clients and cared deeply about what happened to them and their families. Some were innocent and others were clearly guilty. Some were remorseful, while others were angry or uncommunicative. Many were mentally ill or disabled. Four of them were executed.

What I have learned from trying to save their lives is that they are no more or less human than myself — and that none of us is perfect enough to decide who lives and dies.

 

Ken Rose, a former senior staff attorney at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, has spent 30 years defending condemned men and women. Here, he tells the story of why he has devoted his career to advocating for society’s most despised members. This piece was also published in N.C. Policy Watch’s Progressive Voices.


DEFENSE ATTORNEY

“I couldn’t help Henry in a system where the deck was stacked against him”

Ken Rose, a former attorney at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, argues for Henry McCollum’s exoneration. This essay was originally posted on washingtonpost.com on September 2, 2014. Photo by Jenny Warburg

Watching an innocent client walk out of prison is every defense lawyer’s dream, especially for those of us who represent people condemned to die. This week, I got to watch my client, Henry McCollum, North Carolina’s longest serving death row inmate, regain his freedom after 30 years behind bars. New DNA evidence turned up by the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission proved that another man, a serial rapist and murderer, was the perpetrator in the crime for which Henry and his brother, Leon Brown, were sentenced to death in Robeson County in 1984.

Finally proving Henry and Leon’s innocence was a great victory, but what I cannot forget is that this case is, above all, a tragedy. Two innocent men — both intellectually disabled — spent three decades of their lives being, essentially, tortured by the state of North Carolina.

For Henry, it began when officers held him in an interrogation room for five hours and promised him he could go home if he signed a confession. He was naive enough to believe them. Then the 19-year-old spent three decades watching other inmates be hauled off to the execution chamber. He became so distraught during executions that he had to be put in isolation so he wouldn’t hurt himself.

During those years in prison, he was a man convicted of raping and murdering an 11-year-old living among a population that is notoriously unfriendly to child sex offenders. He wasn’t able to hug his family, or even hold their hands. He saw them only on the infrequent occasions when they were able to travel from New Jersey to Raleigh, an eight-hour trip. His mother and the grandmother who helped raise him died while he was in prison.

Both Henry and Leon got new trials in 1991. Leon’s murder charge was dropped, but he was convicted of rape and sentenced to life in prison. Leon was also exonerated and freed from prison this week.

Even 30 years of appeals aren’t always enough to dig up the truth.

I have been Henry’s attorney for 20 of those years, and he and his family pleaded with me to prove his innocence. But I couldn’t help Henry in a system where the deck was stacked against him. He had signed a detailed confession before a change in laws to require confessions to be videotaped. I had no way to prove that the details in the confession police wrote for Henry — down to the brand of cigarettes smoked by the perpetrator — were all provided by law enforcement.

I was told that the police file on Henry’s case had been lost, so I didn’t know how much evidence police had to ignore to pin this crime on two disabled boys with no history of violence. Until the Innocence Inquiry Commission unearthed that missing file, I didn’t know that Roscoe Artis, the man whom DNA showed to be the true perpetrator, was a convicted rapist who lived next door to the crime scene, or that, at the time of Henry and Leon’s arrest, Artis was wanted for another, almost identical rape and murder.

I also didn’t know until I saw the file that, three days before Henry’s trial began, law enforcement asked the State Bureau of Investigation to test a fingerprint found at the crime scene for a match with Artis. This was an important request, considering that no physical evidence linked Henry or Leon to the crime. Unbelievably, the test was never completed, and the district attorney tried Henry and Leon for their lives. Artis’s name was never mentioned at the trial.

It took the Innocence Inquiry Commission, working for four years and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, to finally prove my client’s innocence. Sadly, only a handful of defendants ever get that kind of attention and resources. In many other cases, biological evidence is lost, contaminated or never existed to begin with.

Now, with Henry finally free, some people expect me to feel satisfied, or even happy. The truth is: I am angry.

I am angry that we live in a world where two disabled boys can have their lives stolen from them, where cops can lie and intimidate with impunity, where innocent people can be condemned to die and where injustice is so difficult to bring to light.

As I lie awake at night, mulling over the maddening details of this case, I wonder: How many more Henry McCollums are still imprisoned, waiting for help that will never come?


FRIEND

Helen is an artist who is friends with Scott, a man on North Carolina’s death row

I wish people could see that even though most of the people on death row have done something horrendous–or beyond horrendous–that that is only one part of who they are. For example, Scott is a human being who struggles with limitations and sorrow, regret, fear, and at the same time, he’s a person who has light, and beauty, and expressiveness inside of him and who yearns to show that to others and to be seen and heard.


DEFENSE ATTORNEY

There is never a case where death is the appropriate punishment.

JonathanBroun

This year, I began my twentieth year as a capital defense attorney. I have devoted my career to saving the lives of some of North Carolina’s most despised people. People like Demario Atwater, who was sentenced to life in prison for killing UNC student body president Eve Carson, and Malcolm Wright, a skinhead convicted of the racially-motivated killing of an African-American couple.

A few months ago, I had the good fortune to be in the courtroom on the day that Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were declared innocent 30 years after being sentenced to death. I was reminded once again that the death penalty in practice is much more horrific than it is in theory. It is tainted by racial bias and sometimes marred by prosecutorial and police corruption. It imperils people with mental disabilities and endangers the lives of innocent people.

Yet, it is not the stories like those of Henry McCollum and Leon Brown that keep me doing this work. The reality is that many of my clients have actually been involved in the killing of another human being. Many have been responsible for brutal and unprovoked killings. I have been involved in cases where children have been killed, where victims have been tortured or raped, and where the defendant has murdered other innocent people in the past. Some of my cases have provoked comments like, “If anyone deserves the death penalty, it is your guy.” Many of my clients had fair trials and good attorneys and were convicted.

Yet, every one of my cases has reaffirmed my belief that the death penalty is wrong. I get to know the people who have committed these awful acts. I come to see them as human beings with complicated stories, people not so different from myself, rather than as one-dimensional “monsters.” No matter how terrible my client’s crime, I have never met a single one who I believed should be killed by the state. Even those cases that outsiders might say are the “worst of the worst” have shown me a reason why killing my client is simply not the answer.

This is why I love my job: Because I am able to see goodness when others see only evil, because I look for understanding when others just look for hate.

We are lucky enough to have a justice system that recognizes that we must consider “mitigating factors stemming from the diverse frailties of humankind” before imposing a death sentence. So in every capital case, I seek to learn everything about a client’s life.

The defense team interviews the client’s family, friends, teachers, and anyone who has known him (or, occasionally, her). Every record that has anything to do with the client’s background is gathered, read, and digested. Mental health professionals evaluate the client and the records. From this exhaustive investigation I have learned something: The people who commit terrible crimes are not irredeemable or intrinsically evil. They are human beings who have decency and humanity — and who have been severely damaged in some fundamental way.

The circumstances of the client’s life do not excuse the crime. But a death sentence says a crime is so bad and the killer is so evil that there cannot be an explanation or any humanity. It is my job to show the judge and jury that that is never true. There is never a case where death is the appropriate punishment.

There is always some circumstance that brought a client to the point of murder, always some explanation for why he committed this act. Sometimes it is serious mental illness. Sometimes it is a combination of family dysfunction, trauma, poverty, or other complex factors. It is never simply “evil.”

I might have guessed that this type of work would have made me skeptical, cynical, and depressed about our society. Instead, it has helped me to see the decency in every human being.

 

Jonathan Broun is an assistant N.C. capital defender who has represented some of North Carolina’s most high-profile defendants. In April of 2015, we asked Broun what motivates him to take on our state’s most difficult cases and fight tirelessly against the death penalty.

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