The North Carolina death penalty costs millions of dollars each year, even while executions are on hold. A majority of N.C. voters say the death penalty is not worth the costs to taxpayers.
In 2009, Duke University completed the first rigorous study on the costs of the North Carolina death penalty. It found that death penalty prosecutions cost North Carolina at least $11 million a year, despite the fact that no one has been executed since 2006. A 2017 study in Oklahoma by several criminologists found that on average, each death sentence costs taxpayers $700,000 more than life imprisonment.
Most of the money spent on the death penalty is wasted because executions are only rarely carried out. Of more than 450 people who have been sentenced to death in North Carolina since modern death penalty laws were enacted in 1976, only 43 — less than 10 percent — were executed.
The study’s cost estimate was conservative. It included:
Extra defense costs for North Carolina death penalty cases, which require two attorneys paid at higher rates as well as a team of experts and investigators. On average, defending a N.C. death penalty case costs four times as much as a first-degree murder trial in which the defendant faces a maximum of life imprisonment.
Extra payments to jurors in capital trials, which typically last weeks longer than non-capital ones.
The costs of appeals and resentencing hearings, which are far more numerous in death penalty trials because of the high stakes of making a mistake.
The costs to prisons, which must house death-sentenced prisoners in special units with extra security, sometimes for decades.
The study’s estimate of North Carolina death penalty costs did not include prosecution, despite the fact that death penalty cases eat up hundreds of hours in state-funded district attorney’s offices and law enforcement agencies. It also did not include additional costs to pay court reporters and other personnel, or the expense of additional appeals in state and federal court.
North Carolina continues to pay the high costs of the death penalty, despite the public’s growing discomfort with it. Death sentences have become rare occurrences, and polls show declining support for the punishment.
A 2013 poll showed that 68 percent of North Carolinians would support replacing the death penalty with life in prison without parole if offenders were required to work and pay restitution to their victims’ families. A clear majority also favored redirecting taxpayer funds spent on the death penalty to crime fighting, solving cold cases, and assisting crime victims.
For as long as the death penalty exists, the high costs will continue. Given that nine innocent people have been exonerated after being sentenced to death in North Carolina, it’s clear that a strong defense and extensive appeals are necessary to avoid executing an innocent person.
More than 35 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court held in a landmark death penalty case that states must carefully administer the death penalty to make sure it is reserved for the “worst of the worst.” It is intolerable, the Court said, for the death penalty to be imposed in a manner that is as random as being struck by lightning. North Carolina completely revamped its death penalty statute in response to that ruling. Yet today, the use of the death penalty in North Carolina remains largely arbitrary.
Whether a defendant ultimately receives the death penalty depends less on the severity of his or her crime than on random factors such as the prosecutor’s enthusiasm for the death penalty, the skill and experience of the defense lawyers, and the race of the victim. For example, studies have found that defendants in cases with white victims are significantly more likely to be tried capitally and to receive death sentences than those where the victim was a person of color.
The inconsistency in the application of the death penalty led former North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice and death penalty supporter Burley B. Mitchell, Jr. to remark, “It’s like being picked in a lottery… It’s totally arbitrary.”
Imagine yourself in the shoes of a death row prisoner.
These questions are more likely to determine whether you got the death penalty than the facts of the crime.
WHAT YEAR WAS IT?
If you were tried before 2001, you had the misfortune to be sentenced during an era when pro-death penalty sentiment was running high and key legal protections were not yet in place. Dozens of people were sent to death row each year, compared with few or none today. You might have gotten an unqualified lawyer or been denied the right to see key evidence in your case. Beginning in 2001, laws changed to give capital defendants far more legal protections. But you were tried before then, so you’re out of luck. [Read CDPL’s comprehensive report on pre-reform cases, Unequal Justice.]
WHAT COUNTY WERE YOU IN?
In North Carolina, district attorneys (DAs) decide which defendants will face the death penalty. There are more than 40 elected DAs across the state, and each one approaches the death penalty differently. Some never seek death sentences, while others stake their political reputations on winning them. Maybe you had the misfortune of being tried under the reign of Ken Honeycutt, who aggressively sought the death penalty against black defendants and celebrated death sentences by handing out noose-shaped lapel pins to his staff. [Learn how the death penalty is warped by overzealous prosecutors who seek executions at disproportionate rates.]
WHAT WAS THE RACE OF YOUR VICTIM?
A comprehensive study showed that, if your case involves at least one white victim, you are 2.6 times more likely to get the death penalty in North Carolina than if the victim is a person of color.
WHO WAS YOUR LAWYER?
Were you rich enough to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for a defense lawyer? Almost certainly not. That means you, like nearly everyone else on death row, relied on a public defender. Were you assigned a highly qualified one who devoted months of painstaking work to making the case for your life? Or did you get an overworked, inexperienced lawyer who spent just a few hours preparing for your trial? Did you get a lawyer who came to court drunk? Missed key deadlines in your case? Especially if you were tried before 2001, when the state finally created an agency to oversee capital defense, it was the luck of the draw.
DID YOU REFUSE A PLEA DEAL?
Imagine this scenario. You and a friend were involved in a crime. Your friend planned the crime and did most of the work of carrying it out. The DA offers you both a deal. If you plead guilty and accept life in prison, with zero chance of parole, you can avoid a death sentence. Your friend accepts. But you feel you don’t deserve such a harsh sentence for your minor role in the crime. You are only 19 and think you should get a second chance instead of dying behind bars. (Maybe you have a mental illness and cannot understand the risks of refusing this plea. Maybe, for a variety of reasons, you don’t entirely trust your lawyer, who is telling you to take the deal. Or maybe you simply want to exercise your constitutional right to a trial.) As punishment for refusing the plea, the DA seeks the death penalty and wins. You were the minor player in this crime, yet your co-defendant got life and you got death. Many people on death row ended up there because they refused plea bargains, which isn’t a very good way of choosing who lives and who dies.
There is no evidence that the North Carolina death penalty deters crime. The N.C. murder rate has stayed steady or declined in the years since executions stopped. The death penalty has failed to deliver on the much-touted promise that it makes the people of North Carolina safer.
In this video, a former N.C. prison warden and police chief explain how the death penalty fails to contribute to public safety:
Over the past several years, there has been a steep drop-off in the use of the death penalty. No one has been executed in North Carolina since 2006. The number of death sentences handed down by juries declined to near zero. And prosecutors have opted to seek the death penalty in only a tiny handful of cases. During those years, the state’s murder rate has remained far lower than during North Carolina’s years of heavy death penalty use.The evidence is clear that the North Carolina death penalty fails to deter crime.
Nationally, murder rates are significantly lower in states that don’t use the death penalty than in those where the death penalty remains on the books— and have been consistently for the past two decades. In some years, the murder rate in non-death penalty states was nearly 50 percent lower than in death penalty states.
Studies purporting to show that the death penalty reduces crime have been discredited by rigorous research. Most people on death row committed their crimes in the heat of passion, while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or while in the grips of mental illness or trauma. They represent a group that is highly unlikely to make rational decisions based on a fear of future consequences.
In a 2008 survey, police chiefs from across the country ranked the death penalty at the bottom of a list of effective crime-fighting tools. They said more law enforcement resources were the most needed tool for reducing violent crime. When it comes to crime deterrence, they had little use for the death penalty.
Juveniles and people with intellectual disabilities are legally exempt from the death penalty because of their diminished capacity to understand and control their actions. Serious mental illness can reduce culpability in the same way, yet North Carolina offers few protections. For example, there is no law allowing judges to remove the death penalty from consideration because of mental illness, and defendants can mount an “insanity” defense before a jury, but juries rarely grant relief on this basis.
Some of the people who have been sentenced to death in North Carolina have schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders that can cause delusions, hallucinations, disorganized thinking, and disruption of memory and perception. Some are suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder, either because they are war veterans or suffered severe childhood trauma.
It is exceedingly difficult for defendants with severe mental illnesses to receive a fair trial. Many defendants with mental illnesses are paranoid and distrustful of their attorneys, leaving them unable to provide their defense team with critical information. Some cannot remember what may have happened or where they were. Additionally, if they are taking psychotropic medications to control their illness, they may appear apathetic and remorseless at trial; if they fail to take these medications, however, defendants may become belligerent or frightening in front of the jury.
Across the US, the majority of people executed have suffered under the weight of mental illnesses.
James Davis survived a shrapnel wound in Vietnam, but he never recovered from the psychological wounds he suffered during two brutal combat tours — which were compounded by severe childhood abuse and mental illness. Psychiatrists have now diagnosed him with paranoid schizophrenia and combat-related PTSD, but the jury at his trial heard almost no evidence of his severe mental illness.
In 1995, James walked into an Asheville tool manufacturing plant, from which he had been fired a few days earlier, and killed three employees: Gerald Allman, Frank Knox and Tony Balogh. By the time of the murders, everyone who knew James believed he was seriously mentally ill. In the years before his crime, he lived in almost complete isolation, talked to himself, and shot at imaginary groundhogs in his yard. On the day of the shooting, investigators who interviewed him after he turned himself in said James appeared to be hearing voices and hallucinating. At his trial, he had to be so heavily medicated that his speech was slurred and he could not hold a coherent conversation.
As a child, James’ alcoholic father whipped him with a leather strap until he bled and beat James with a mop handle if he spoke at the dinner table. The father sexually abused his children and often threatened to kill them while they slept. At 15, James was placed in foster care. He never received treatment for symptoms of mental illness that plagued him for most of his life, nor did he receive mental health treatment after seeing near-constant combat during two tours in Vietnam. In 2009, he received a belated Purple Heart for his service in Vietnam.
At a separate civil trial, in which the families of James’ victims sued his former employer for failing to protect them from James, more than a dozen witnesses provided compelling evidence of James’ mental illness, none of which had been revealed at his criminal trial. The families won one of the largest civil settlements in North Carolina history. Since being sentenced to death, James’ paranoia and depression have continued to worsen. At one point, he fired his attorneys and asked to be executed, saying that continuing with appeals lead to increased paranoia and voices in his head.
As a jury weighed whether to sentence him to death, Guy LeGrande stood before them wearing a Superman T-shirt and made a non-sensical speech that concluded with the declaration that they should “pull the damn switch and shake that groove thing.” A state psychiatrist had deemed him psychotic, yet the judge allowed him to fire his court-appointed lawyers and represent himself at trial. The jury deliberated for 53 minutes before condemning him to death.
Guy LeGrande, who has been on death row since 1996, is perhaps the most striking example of the lack of protections afforded to people with mental illness in North Carolina’s capital punishment system. Before his trial, a psychiatrist at a state mental facility examined Guy and found that he had “narcissistic, grandiose, and hypomanic traits” and prescribed anti-psychotic medication.
Guy stood accused of the 1993 contract killing of Ellen Munford, a white Stanly County woman whose estranged husband, Tommy Munford, promised to pay Guy $6,500 for the murder. Tommy Munford gave Guy a gun, dropped him off in the woods next to the home, and picked up his two children so his wife would be alone. Tommy Munford received a life sentence for plotting the murder.
During trial, Guy, who is African-American, became more and more agitated as three separate witnesses referred to him as a “n****r.” The Stanly County prosecutor trying his case was well-known for wearing a lapel pin in the shape of a noose, and distributing them to his staff as morale-boosters when they won death sentences. Guy made outrageous statements to the prosecutor and others, claiming, among other things, that Oprah Winfrey and Dan Rather were sending him messages over the television. He called the jurors “antichrists.”
Lawyers appointed to be on “standby” to assist Guy were so troubled by his bizarre behavior that they filed a motion arguing he was not competent to represent himself. When the judge asked Guy what he had to say, he tore the document in half. The judge then allowed the trial to proceed.
During the crucial penalty phase of the trial, Guy’s incoherent ramblings culminated in this antagonistic argument to the jury:
Hell ain’t deep enough for you people. But you remember when you arrive, say my name, Guy Tobias LeGrande. For I shall be waiting. And each and every one of you will be mine for all eternity. And we shall dance in my father’s house. And you will worship me and proclaim me Lord and master. But for right now, all you so-called good folks can kiss my natural black ass in the showroom of Helig Meyers. Pull the damn switch and shake that groove thing.
Not only did Guy serve as his own lawyer at trial, the N.C. courts also allowed him to represent himself in post-conviction proceedings. He waived those appeals. In 2007, after more than a decade on death row, a Superior Court Judge finally declared Guy incompetent to be executed, requiring him to stay on death row until a time when he may be rendered competent and then executed. His lawyers’ requests for clemency have been ignored, and he remains on death row.
Had Allen Holman been prosecuted under current laws, he likely never would have faced the death penalty. He pled guilty and expressed deep remorse for shooting his wife, Linda Holman, to death in a grocery store parking lot in Apex. Allen and Linda were both seriously mentally ill, and Allen did not plan the crime. Instead, the July 1997 killing followed an out-of-control argument. Afterward, devastated by his actions, Allen shot himself in the stomach, one of several suicide attempts both before and after the crime.
Allen’s trial attorneys say that, in a private conversation, a Wake County prosecutor said the office would offer a sentence of life without parole “in a heartbeat” if the law allowed it. However, at the time, North Carolina was the only state in the nation that forced district attorneys to seek death in every aggravated first-degree murder. In 1998, a Wake jury sent Allen to death row.
Under current law, defendants willing to take responsibility for their crimes are almost never prosecuted capitally. In Wake County today, defendants are tried for the death penalty only if they refuse to plead guilty to first-degree murder. If they agree to plead guilty, as Allen did, they receive a sentence of life without parole. Documented serious mental illness like Allen’s is another factor that, today, almost always leads a prosecutor to choose a life sentence over death.
Even in cases that go to capital trials, Wake juries have not voted for a death sentence since 2007. But, at the time of Allen’s trial, even people who pled guilty, committed unplanned crimes, or were so mentally ill that they could barely participate in their own defense ended up on death row. Allen was one of them.
Allen and Linda Holman married in 1992. Allen had a history of depression and suicide attempts. Linda had multiple personality disorder and a substance abuse problem; Allen was her fifth husband. From the beginning, the marriage was fraught with violence on both sides. Shortly before the murder, Allen injured his back, lost his job, and attempted suicide. Linda asked Allen to move out. She told friends she wanted him dead and wished his suicide attempt had been successful. She openly resumed her relationship with an ex-husband, and then taunted Allen by displaying a nude photo of her lover in the bedroom she shared with Allen.
The jury that sentenced Allen to death, however, had little of this context. Allen refused to cooperate with his attorneys to present mitigating evidence of his mental illness. His lawyers failed to present any evidence of Linda’s personality disorder either. The jury never knew that Linda had repeatedly shot at and tried to stab Allen in the past, or that she was openly committing adultery. What’s more, Allen’s lawyers didn’t allow him to testify in his own defense, and no one told the jury of his deep remorse for the crime. While none of this evidence excused the murder, it would have helped explain Allen’s actions and might have persuaded the jury to vote for a life sentence.
On death row, Allen’s remorse, depression, and mental illness have persisted. During a crucial period in his appeals process, he fired his attorneys and asked to be executed, so the courts were never able to fully review his case. Allen has since asked to resume his appeals, but he lost his chance to present key evidence to the courts.
Intellectual disabilities compromise decision-making skills. They make people incapable of fully understanding the consequences of their actions, and render them unable to participate in their own defense. That’s why, in 2001, North Carolina passed a law prohibiting the execution of people with intellectual disabilities. In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court made the ban nationwide. Yet, the NC death penalty still targets people with intellectual disabilities.
People are sometimes kept on death row because of a single IQ test where they score slightly above the state’s cutoff of 70. In 2014, the Supreme Court found this practice unconstitutional and barred states from using a strict IQ cutoff to determine intellectual disability. The court said states must look at a range of IQ scores, and also consider how defendants function in daily life — the same standards that have been used for decades by psychologists and teachers. Despite these decisions, several people on North Carolina death row with strong evidence of intellectual disability are still awaiting the death penalty.
Read stories of people on North Carolina death row who have intellectual disabilities that should make them ineligible for the NC death penalty.
Frank Junior Chambers was the third of five children born into extreme poverty in rural Rowan County. His father beat his mother so badly that she suffered permanent headaches and hearing loss. The beatings continued during her pregnancy with Frank, when he hit and kicked her in the stomach. She never received any prenatal care. Compounding the damage, Frank contracted bacterial meningitis as an infant, a frequent cause of intellectual disability.
Throughout his childhood, the signs of Frank’s disability were clear. He couldn’t learn to write his name or follow basic commands. At 8 years old, he still wasn’t potty trained and couldn’t dress himself. His teachers remarked that he was “slow to grasp basic concepts” and he failed several grades. At 12, when testing showed him reading at a second-grade level, his teachers placed him in special education. He dropped out in eighth grade, when he was 15. IQ scores throughout his lifetime range from 63 to 73, clearly in the range of intellectual disability. His mother told his defense attorneys that she always worried her son had brain damage, but that the family was too poor to get him any care. “We were barely surviving,” she said.
As an adult, Frank never held a job for long. He never lived independently, but boarded with a woman who helped take care of him. The woman said he was unable to do basic tasks like hanging clothes on a line, and she was afraid to leave him in the house alone for fear he would accidentally start a fire. “In order for him to understand, you’d have to break down what you were trying to say like [he] was a little kindergarten child,” she said.
In 1994, Frank was one of three men tried for the killing of an elderly couple, B.P. and Ruby Tutterow, during a robbery at their house. Prosecutors portrayed Frank as the remorseless mastermind of the crime. Meanwhile, Frank’s defense attorneys never investigated his family history or had him evaluated by a psychologist. The jury heard nothing of his profound intellectual disability. Meanwhile, the jury sentenced one of his co-defendants to life, precisely because that defendant’s attorneys presented evidence of intellectual disability.
Since 2001, when the Supreme Court banned the execution of people with intellectual disabilities, his appeals attorneys have compiled overwhelming evidence of Frank’s disability. Yet, his claims have stalled in the courts and Frank remains on death row.
Timothy Richardson was born with fetal alcohol syndrome and had severe lead poisoning as a toddler, both of which cause brain damage and serious mental and physical disabilities. He failed in school and struggled to learn to read. As an adult, he was never able to live independently, hold a job, or handle his own daily care. He frequently put his clothes on inside out, and his wife had to remind him to shower. She also adjusted the water temperature for him. He relied on family for errands like grocery shopping because he didn’t understand how much money he had or came home with the wrong items. On two IQ tests, he scored below 70, the N.C. statute’s original cutoff for a diagnosis of intellectual disability. Yet, despite laws that prohibit the execution of people with such disabilities, Timothy remains on death row.
Timothy was convicted and sentenced to death in 1995 for the kidnapping and murder of a convenience store clerk in Nash County, Tracy Marie Rich. The most significant evidence against him came from his confession, although people with intellectual disabilities are especially vulnerable to being pressured into false confessions. Timothy’s confession was not recorded or signed, which is required by law today. In it, Timothy said he was present at the crime, but that another man committed the murder. Yet, Timothy was the only person prosecuted. Police found a shoe print at the crime scene that did not match Timothy’s, but it was destroyed and never compared against other suspects. Had it matched the man Timothy named, it might have helped prove Timothy’s limited involvement in the crime.
At trial, an expert told the jury Timothy functioned at the level of an 11 or 12 year old. But at the time, it was still legal to execute people with intellectual disabilities. Seven years after his trial, the law changed to protect intellectually-disabled defendants. Since then, Timothy’s post-conviction lawyers have compiled extensive evidence of his disability. His mother drank alcohol heavily throughout her pregnancy with him. At three years old, he was hospitalized after a blood test showed a lead level of eight times the acceptable limit. One expert said Timothy’s lead level was “like taking a shotgun and shooting at brain cells.” Beginning as early as 11 years old, he compounded the damage by abusing drugs and alcohol. His drug use spiraled when he was a teenager after his brother was killed, and he remained addicted to drugs for his entire adult life.
The state, however, has pointed to two IQ tests where Timothy scored just above 70, and a judge dismissed his claim of intellectual disability. In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court once again addressed the issue of intellectual disability and the death penalty, ruling that it was illegal to base determinations of disability on a strict IQ cutoff as the courts did in Timothy’s case. The court said that states should instead consider the defendant’s IQ alongside his functioning in daily life to determine whether he is disabled. A federal court recently found that he is entitled to a new hearing to present evidence of his disability under modern laws.
A string of horrifically botched executions. States turning to illegal foreign sources and unregulated pharmacies to find execution drugs. Executions accidentally carried out using the wrong drugs. Lethal injection in the U.S. has become the very definition of “cruel and unusual.” North Carolina should continue to stay out of this grim business.
When lethal injection became the standard method of execution in the United States in the 1980s, it seemed states had found a simpler and less painful way to kill prisoners after years of grisly electrocutions, in which some people caught fire, and gassings that sometimes led to toxic leaks. But in the decades since, lethal injection has proven to be complicated, error-prone, and torturous.
Botched executions have made headlines across the country, such as that of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, who gasped and struggled for 43 minutes as witnesses looked on in horror. After a doctor’s 16 failed attempts to correctly place Lockett’s IV, sending blood spurting across the room, Lockett was still moaning and trying to raise his head. State officials called off the execution in a panic, leaving Lockett to die of a heart attack. Lockett’s was just one of several horrific executions in the past several years.
Now knowing the torture a botched lethal injection can cause, drug manufacturers are no longer willing to sell states their medicines, which are intended to heal sick patients. Faced with a shortage of execution drugs, many states are turning to questionable sources or untested drug combinations—often with disastrous results.
To avoid scrutiny, several states, including North Carolina, have passed laws making the sources of their drugs secret. One such secrecy law in Oklahoma allowed a prisoner to be executed using the wrong drug. The error was discovered minutes before a second inmate was to be executed using the unapproved drug. Several states have now put executions on hold after failed attempts to find the correct drugs.
Lethal injection’s troubles are nothing new. Problems have plagued the process for years. In North Carolina, executions have been on hold since 2006 because of serious concerns about the state’s lethal injection procedures.
In the years leading up to the halt, witness reports indicate North Carolina also carried out torturous executions. In affidavits, witnesses described prisoners convulsing, struggling against their restraints, and gasping for breath for several minutes after their lethal injections. “Instead of the quiet death I expected, Willie began convulsing,” defense attorney Cynthia Adcock said after witnessing the 2001 execution of Willie Fisher. “The convulsing was so extreme that Willie’s cousin jumped up screaming.” N.C. prison officials dispute that these executions were botched, but the witness observations are remarkably similar to proven instances of torture in other states.
North Carolina lethal injection not only tortures the people strapped to the gurney, it traumatizes witnesses and prison staff, and it mires the state in an inept bureaucratic process. Time and again, state officials have proven unable to carry out lethal injection in the dignified way we expect from a government function that takes life.
In past North Carolina lethal injectins, state officials have:
Ignored the law requiring a physician to oversee and participate in executions. The most recent prison physician to attend executions said that, at some lethal injections, he was present but did not participate or monitor the person who was executed in any way. At several other executions, he said he was not even on the same floor as the execution chamber.
Lied to a federal judge about the role of physicians during executions. During a 2006 lawsuit challenging North Carolina’s lethal injection procedures as cruel and unusual, a federal judge found that there were “substantial questions as to whether North Carolina’s execution protocol creates an undue risk of excessive pain.” In response, state officials revised the execution protocol to require that a physician observe a brain wave monitor and ensure that the individual was unconscious. Two people were executed after this change. However, in those cases, the prison physician said he was not asked to read the monitor, nor was he trained to read it.
Used dangerous equipment, and lied to the manufacturer to get it. The brain wave monitor purchased in response to the 2006 lawsuit, called a bispectral index monitor, was never tested or approved by the FDA for the prison’s intended use in executions. When purchasing the monitor, the prison told the manufacturer it would be used to monitor patients recovering from surgery. When the company discovered its true use, its medical director said the monitor could not guarantee that a person was unconscious and that the company would not have sold it to the prison if it had known it was for use in executions.
Now, more than a decade since the last North Carolina lethal injection, the situation is no better. In 2015, the N.C. legislature enacted laws making the process even less transparent and accountable to the public. Under that law, the suppliers of drugs are now kept secret, doctors are not required to oversee executions, and the execution protocol is exempt from a rulemaking process that allows for public comment and oversight. Other recent laws have removed the oversight of the governor and the Council of State, and, incredibly, ensured that medical professionals cannot be disciplined if they perform negligently or incompetently during an execution.
If North Carolina were to restart lethal injections now, it would be left scrambling for execution drugs. The execution protocol calls for pentobarbital, the drug that manufacturers refuse to sell. The state would be forced to substitute other drug combinations, which have proven disastrous in other states, or turn to unregulated compounding pharmacies, which also have ethical concerns about providing execution drugs.
North Carolina should not be in the business of human experimentation, nor should it risk a torturous and unconstitutional lethal injection.
The most serious job our criminal justice system can undertake is to decide whether a person lives or dies. Yet, death penalty trials in North Carolina are littered with errors, misconduct, and questionable evidence.
The right to an adequate defense is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, but many on death row had attorneys who made a mockery of that promise. Some defendants were represented by lawyers who went to court drunk. Others by lawyers who were so overwhelmed with cases that they didn’t even read the evidence, request key records, or interview witnesses in their clients’ cases before going to trial. Many lawyers failed to present any mitigating evidence about their clients’ life stories. In one case, the attorneys begged the judge to postpone the trial, saying they had not even begun to prepare. The judge refused, and the trial began the next day.
Falsified or discredited forensic evidence has also been used to convict and sentence people to death. The State Crime Lab has admitted that, over a 16-year period, analysts systematically withheld or distorted blood evidence in an attempt to secure convictions in at least 230 cases, including 10 in which the defendants were sentenced to death and three that resulted in executions. Five of those defendants remain on death row. Ballistics and hair analysis methods that were routinely used in death penalty cases have also been called into question in recent years.
What’s more, death penalty convictions regularly rely on evidence that has been shown to be unreliable, such as questionable eyewitness identifications, coerced confessions, and the testimony of informants, jailhouse snitches, and co-defendants. In some cases, witnesses have received relief from criminal charges or even cash payments for their testimony.
Read the stories below of North Carolinians whose cases were distorted by unfair trials, bad lawyering, and improper evidence.
As he faced the death penalty, Ronald “Ronnie” Frye’s court-appointed attorney was Tom Portwood, a notorious alcoholic who would later admit to drinking 12 shots a day during Ronnie’s trial. During the time he represented Ronnie and other capital defendants, Tom Portwood was involved in a car accident where police measured his blood alcohol concentration at more than 0.4, enough to kill most people. The attorney failed to do the most basic investigation into Ronnie’s background. He didn’t give the jury even a glimpse of Ronnie’s childhood of abandonment and abuse. A jury must be unanimous to impose a death sentence, and years after the trial, some jurors said they would have refused to vote for death if they had heard the story of Ronnie’s tortured youth.
Ronnie was executed in 2001. Tom Portwood also represented Nathan Bowie, who remains on death row, and Glen “Ed” Chapman, who was exonerated in 2008, 15 years after being sentenced to death for crimes he didn’t commit.
The U.S. Supreme Court says mitigating evidence is vital in a death penalty case to help explain a crime. It is unconstitutional to sentence a person to death without considering life experiences and other mitigating factors. Ronnie and his two brothers were abandoned by their father and left in the care of a neglectful single mother. At 18 months, Ronnie was rushed to the hospital after drinking a glass of kerosene. When Ronnie was just 3 years old, his mother gave him away to a couple she met at a gas station. The man was a violent alcoholic who beat Ronnie with a bullwhip, leaving what witnesses described as “bloody stripes” on Ronnie’s body.
The beatings went on for six years before a teacher noticed Ronnie’s scars and the man was arrested for assault. A police chief later used Ronnie’s childhood photos as examples at child abuse seminars. Ronnie ended up in the custody of the biological father who deserted him at birth, who was also an abusive alcoholic. He dragged Ronnie out of bed to watch as he beat the boy’s stepmother. The stepmother left the home after a particularly severe beating. Neighbors reported Ronnie had been abandoned; his father wasn’t home, he was hungry, and the house was maggot-infested. Eventually, Ronnie was given back to the mother who had given him away him as a toddler.
Ronnie never received counseling for his childhood traumas. Instead, they fueled a lifetime of addiction to alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine. His downward spiral culminated in 1993 with the murder of Leroy Childress, a landlord who had just given Ronnie an eviction notice. After Ronnie’s trial, his lawyer’s alcoholism became so debilitating that Tom Portwood was pulled off another death penalty case and sent to a detox facility.
Ronnie was executed on August 31, 2001. Tom Portwood died two years later from an alcohol-related disease.
When Kenneth Neal went on trial for the murder of his estranged girlfriend in 1996, he was not the only person in the courtroom recently accused of a crime. His court-appointed defense attorney was a convicted child pornographer whose fall from grace had been widely publicized in the same rural county just a few years before Kenneth’s trial. The poor defense Kenneth received was likely the reason he spent 19 years on death row, despite having an IQ of 69. He was finally resentenced to life without parole in 2015 because of his intellectual disability.
Kenneth was convicted in the 1995 killing of Amanda McCurdy, his longtime girlfriend and the mother of his child. She had recently asked Kenneth to move out of the home they shared, and Kenneth was unable to cope with the loss of his relationship, home, and child. One of 11 children of a tenant farmer, Kenneth grew up in extreme poverty and dropped out of school before completing ninth grade. He couldn’t afford an attorney, so the court assigned him Douglas Osborne.
Osborne was a notorious figure. In 1989, while an assistant district attorney, he was caught in a federal sting and convicted of buying sex tapes involving children as young as seven. The tapes portrayed incestuous sex between siblings and their parents. His arrest received more publicity than most, because he was a prosecutor and came from a well-known Rockingham County family. In the months between his arrest and trial, Osborne was the subject of multiple front-page stories in local newspapers, which followed the case from the initial charges all the way through to conviction.
Osborne spent a year in federal prison and had his law license suspended for five years. He finished probation and regained his law license just a year before Kenneth’s trial. During the trial, his attorney failed to present evidence that could have spared Kenneth a death sentence, including his low IQ, extreme poverty, and history of family violence. No experts testified to his intellectual disability, and the only testimony about Kenneth’s mental health came from a psychologist not licensed to practice in the United States without supervision.
Interviews with jurors after the trial proved that they knew about Osborne’s crimes and discussed them as they were weighing Kenneth’s fate. One juror said the attorney’s conviction was “the most disgusting type of crime there is” and that Kenneth “could not have done worse” than to have Douglas Osborne as his attorney.
Three days before Johnny Burr’s capital trial began in Alamance County in March 1993, his lawyers begged a judge to postpone the trial. They said they had not yet done the most basic work of defending their client, who was accused of beating a baby to death. The case hinged on hundreds of pages of medical records. They hadn’t begun to read them, nor hired any experts to help them decipher such complex information. Even as they selected a jury, the lawyers continued to plead with the judge to delay the trial, but the judge refused.
Johnny’s attorneys had been assigned to his case just two and a half months before, taking over for attorneys who left the case in disarray. The lead attorney was overwhelmed with capital cases. The other attorney had never tried a capital case, since his law practice focused on real estate transactions.
Johnny stood accused of inflicting the head injury that killed his girlfriend’s 4-month-old daughter, Tarissa “Susie” O’Daniel. He had no history of child abuse, and has always said he is innocent. On that night in August 1991, the baby’s mother left a sleeping Susie in Johnny’s care for 45 minutes. When she returned, she found the baby unresponsive and lying in her swing.
Susie’s mother told police that, earlier in the day, Susie’s 8-year-old brother accidentally dropped the baby on a gravel driveway and then fell on top of her. Afterward, she said, Susie had seizures and cried for more than an hour. Johnny’s attorneys never hired a medical expert to investigate whether the fall could have caused Susie’s death.
Instead, at trial, Johnny’s attorneys conceded in opening statements that Susie’s fatal injuries occurred while Johnny was babysitting her, which Johnny denied. Most damaging to Johnny’s defense, they allowed three doctors to testify that Susie had a severe skull fracture — it looked like “a pushed in ping-pong ball,” one doctor said — that could not have been caused by a fall. Even a quick read of Susie’s autopsy report would have told Johnny’s lawyers that the doctors were wrong. Susie never had a skull fracture.
Since Johnny’s conviction, his trial lawyers have readily admitted that they did not provide him adequate assistance of counsel as required by the Constitution. Experts hired by his new defense team have examined Susie’s medical records and found that her fatal injuries could have been caused by the fall her brother described. Doctors who testified at the trial now say their testimony about a skull fracture was wrong, and that the fall might have been more serious than they knew. Yet, while a federal district court concluded that Johnny’s attorneys provided inadequate representation, a higher court reversed the decision and denied him a new trial.
At the trial that ended with Patricia “Pat” Jennings’ death sentence, five witnesses testified about blood that spattered onto the ceiling and wall during the crime. When Pat took the stand, the prosecutor demanded that she explain how the blood got there—and implied that she was lying when she could not. During the trial’s sentencing phase, the prosecutor theorized that the blood on the ceiling flew from the victim’s mouth while Pat hit or stomped him. The truth was, there never was any blood on the ceiling or wall.
Pat was sentenced to death in 1990 for killing her husband, William Henry Jennings, in a Wilson hotel room. Without the falsified blood evidence, Pat likely would not have received a death sentence. The blood on the ceiling and wall was used to prove that Pat’s crime was “especially heinous, atrocious or cruel,” an aggravating circumstance that made her eligible for the death penalty. “Were they slaughtering chickens…? There was blood everywhere in that room,” the prosecutor told the jury.
The SBI analyst who testified at Pat’s trial, Brenda Bissette, told the jury that her initial analysis showed there was blood on the ceiling and wall. But she never told the jury about two other confirmatory tests, both of which showed that the substance on the wall was not blood. Instead, she lied and said she was unable to do further testing. She also did not reveal that the initial test is prone to false positives.
The false blood evidence was repeated over and over during the trial. Samples of the wallpaper and diagrams of the supposed blood spatter were shown to the jury. “Remember the blood on the ceiling?” the prosecutor asked the jury during the trial’s sentencing phase. “Was he throwing his arms in defense and the blood shot up from the defensive wounds on the back of his hands? Or did she hit him so hard or stomp him so hard that it flew up there from his mouth?”
Pat was finally removed from death row in 2013. She was resentenced to life in prison after her lawyers presented evidence of errors by her trial and appeal lawyers, as well as the falsified blood analysis.
After 23 years under a death sentence, the 70-year-old Pat was moved into the general prison population.
These are a few of the facts about the North Carolina death penalty today:
North Carolina has the fourth largest death row in the nation, with 143 men and women. Most of the people awaiting the death penalty today were tried more than fifteen years ago, under outdated laws that failed to ensure fair trials. [Read more about Unequal Justice.]
There are now only a handful of death penalty trials each year, and North Carolina juries very rarely vote for death sentences. Yet, North Carolina continues to spend millions of dollars a year on capital punishment.
NCCADP believes that ending the death penalty is a key part of the broader work for criminal justice reform in North Carolina. So long as death is on the table, the system will remain skewed toward cruelty — and hope for meaningful, humane reform will fall short.
Losing a loved one to murder brings unimaginable pain to a victim’s family. Without question, we believe that every North Carolina murder victim’s family should get the support they need to heal. Yet, for the vast majority of grieving families of murder victims in North Carolina, the death penalty plays no role in that process.
More than 500 people are murdered each year in North Carolina, and juries sentence at most one person a year to death — meaning that the death penalty has no impact for the overwhelming majority of North Carolina murder victims and their families. In the few cases where a death sentence is imposed, victim families must endure decades of appeals, each bringing a fresh round of attention to the loss and crime. In some cases, an execution does not happen within their lifetimes.
A growing number of families of murder victims in North Carolina say the death penalty only creates more pain, both for them and for the families of defendants. Many say that the millions spent each year on pursuing death sentences could be better spent on programs that reduce violent crime or on victims’ services. Right now, there is often no funding to provide victim advocates, assistance with funeral costs, or counseling.
Daniel “Peace” Smith was dancing in a Raleigh nightclub when he accidentally spilled another man’s beer. Thirty minutes later, that man stabbed Peace to death in the club’s bathroom. Peace’s parents were notified of their son’s death in the early hours of a Friday morning. Before noon, his father, Andre says he had forgiven the man who murdered his son.
Andre is a practicing Buddhist, and was already teaching meditation and anger management to incarcerated men at Nash Correctional when he lost his son. Losing Peace, he said, makes him even more dedicated to his practice and his teaching.
Some people are still living their loss after seven years, twenty years—they still can’t let it go. What can you do? There is nothing I can do or say. People hear my story of forgiveness, but they don’t see how they could get there or even if they should get there. I thought my daughter would be angry at me for forgiving her brother’s killer but, after a time, she told her mom, I’m not mad at Dad. I am just angry at myself because I can’t get there. You do question yourself and ask, What is wrong with me? Is it because I do not love my son? It is not an easy path.
I lost my son. And not wanting the guy who killed my son to suffer, this is contentment for me. I feel content. I’m not trying to get my son back, I know that’s never going to happen. I’m not trying to seek revenge. I am content. And so therefore I am able to experience some happiness as a result of that.
Also, we’re all looking for closure, if this has ever happened to us. I don’t think you find closure in this person’s death. That’s not closure. Closure is when I feel happy, and when I’m not suffering. And the only way that I know of that I can feel happy and not suffer is to wish this guy no harm. And if possible, to serve him in some way. To help him to be able to never to do this again. To help him to be able to see, God, what I did was wrong. That’s what I want to do. That is what’s gonna make me happy. That is what’s going to make society happy. Because this person will never go out and kill again. Because this person understands what that is now. And this person has a new set of tools now that he can use, that he can apply to make sure that he never does that again.
And that is what we should ultimately want. We erroneously think that if we take this guy’s life, then I have closure, and society has closure. But it doesn’t stop the killing. Yeah, that guy won’t kill again because he’s dead, right? But there will be someone else.
If I can teach Wallace Bass, the man who killed my son, if I can teach him how to deal with his anger. How to do differently, how to become a better human being, then he will pass it on to someone else. And this is how we will begin to see a world without this kind of stuff.
It’s a slow process. But it is a process. And it is moving forward. And it does make a difference. Just taking someone’s life, it doesn’t make a difference, it doesn’t move us forward.
In 2004, my beautiful son Brian was senselessly murdered in Wilmington. He was 24.
I’m not a supporter of the death penalty. I believe all life is sacred and it’s not up to me to decide who lives or dies. Through my experience, I realized Brian’s family and friends were not the only victims in our case. The courtroom was filled with victims from both sides at the sentencing hearing; people struggling with the devastation of homicide who became victims through no choice of their own. My heart went out to the mother and grandmother of my son’s murderer; I would never want them to suffer as I have. There are other ways to hold offenders accountable within the justice system, and for me, accountability is the key to justice.
What’s more, capital cases often take many years to resolve. Each time there’s another legal proceeding, family members are subjected to more heart-rending testimony and news headlines.
Hanging over it all is the threat that our imperfect system will execute an innocent person. This isn’t a possibility; it has happened, more than once and one innocent life is one too many. How does that awful prospect honor the memories of our lost children?
We can honor the victims by shifting our priority to the families left behind, lending support as they navigate this often hostile and confusing journey. We need more resources to help those profoundly affected by crime, expand our view of victims to include the family and friends of the offender as well. We need to stop the process of re-victimizing those whose grief is only complicated by the legal process.
So much money, time and resources are put into the death penalty that could be better used to serve victims in their healing. It’s in our personal healing where crime prevention begins and solutions are found.
In this audio clip, Lynda shares her experience addressing James, the young man who murdered her son, at James’ sentencing hearing:
Listen to Lynda read the letter she received from Alim, a man on North Carolina’s death row.
My sister, Kathy Lu McCoy, was abducted off of the streets of Spokane, Washington in 1974, and found murdered several hours later. The crime was extremely brutal, and her last few hours of life were hell on earth.
Her killer, Harry Edward Brooks, was apprehended shortly after she was found, received a life sentence, and remains in prison 41 years later.
While not a hate crime by legal definition, it was a hate crime, similar to the thousands of homicides, and tens of thousands of rapes and other violent acts, committed against women each year simply because they are women. The inability of women to move about independently without having extra fear of violence because of their gender remains a great civil rights problem.
The cruelty of the crime against my sister made me feel, among other emotions, a visceral desire for retribution. It did not, however, change my opposition to, or my family’s opposition to, the death penalty.
Those who have lost loved ones to violence of course have every right to feel however they do about that crime, and about what the fate of their loved one’s killer should be. Among life’s nightmares, such outrageous injustice ranks at the top for horror and damage from which there is no full recovery.
When a killer targets victims because of their race, sexual orientation, gender, religion, or other reasons motivated solely by hatred, that nightmare is even worse, because it rips the very fabric that binds us together as a nation and a people, and does violence to us all, never mind the added layer of violence to the victims’ survivors. There are no adequate words for such crimes against humanity.
We hang on to the death penalty as a deterrent, with no persuasive evidence that it deters, and out of moral outrage and a belief that some crimes cannot be adequately punished without it. The logic and sentiment here make sense, but they do not make the death penalty any less imperfect in the way we employ it. It’s bad public policy, in large part because it contains too many of the same biases and flaws that killers who receive it do. More and more people, including many family members of murder victims, hope we will stop using it, and make that fabric of our society stronger by doing so. My family and I are among them.
Jean Parks is an Asheville psychologist whose sister, Betsy Rosenberg, was murdered in 1975. Betsy was a student at NC State at the time; Jean was attending Davidson College. The man convicted of killing Betsy is currently serving a life sentence; he has maintained his innocence.
I discovered that I opposed the death penalty while at a Parents of Murdered Children support group meeting in Texas. Someone from the Department of Corrections was explaining that they allow victim family members to observe executions, and that when they do, the families visit the prison the day before to get a sense of the layout. “A staff member is always with them,” he said, “offering coffee, donuts, and assistance.” The speaker then paused, and almost as an afterthought, said, “we don’t do anything for the families of the condemned.” Families of the condemned. I immediately began imagining what it would be like to have a loved one about to be executed by the state, knowing there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it; the feelings I imagined were so similar to what my family experienced after Betsy was killed: grief, rage, helplessness. I was horrified to think that our state, “We the People,” is using a form of punishment that creates new grieving families unnecessarily.
From there, I learned more about the death penalty, and more reasons to oppose it: racial inequities, how it’s administered, the prolonged process of appeals that hurts the victims’ families all over again, the economic demands it places on our society, and, of course, the fact that innocent people have been executed. On top of that, for so many, there’s just no real closure.
Once I understood that many people are surprised when a murder victim family member opposes the death penalty, I’ve spoken up for reform, then repeal of the death penalty in North Carolina. I’ve met with a governor, spoken to legislators and written lots of letters to the editors of different newspapers. I’ve also worked to forgive the man convicted of killing my sister. I recently found out, however, that he is maintaining his innocence. I don’t know how to forgive a nameless person, one whose story I don’t know.
If you believe North Carolina needs the death penalty, imagine your father, mother, brother, sister or child has been sentenced to death. Next, imagine your loved one is innocent, but you can’t prove it. An execution date has been set. Do you think we need the death penalty now?
On the Row at Home features the voices and experiences of loved ones across North Carolina who do time outside, alongside their family members on the inside.
The death penalty doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It does irreparable damage to families who must live with the threat that their child, parent, spouse, or sibling will be executed. These innocent people are the unintended casualties of a punishment that only increases the reach of violence and grief.
Many family members spend year after year in limbo, hoping for a successful appeal or a grant of clemency, dreading an execution date. Some travel long distances to visit, while others make do with letters and calls. Some lose touch. The result is more broken and traumatized families.
In some cases, an execution victimizes the same family twice — such as in the case of Elias Syriani, who was executed in 2005 despite the pleas of his adult children to spare his life. Elias murdered their mother, but years after her death, the adult children began to rebuild a relationship with their father and find healing. They spent his last hours with him before he was killed by lethal injection.
Note: Some families, concerned about endangering their loved one or unwittingly disrupting legal appeals, have asked to remain anonymous.
At age 19, Cerron Hooks was charged with murder. Two years later, he was sentenced to death. While he’s grown up on death row, his family has marked time on the outside.
His niece, Kayla, was two months old when Cerron was arrested; he calls her his timeline. In her teenage years, Kayla has struggled with severe depression and anxiety. On her 16th birthday, she received in the mail a drawing from her uncle. It said: May today’s tears water the seeds of tomorrow’s happiness. I am forever in your corner.
Even from death row, Kayla said, he has given me life. He’s helped me keep going.
Brenda was a teenager when she had Cerron. She said they grew up together: He was my baby, my son, my best friend. He’s now been on the row for half his life.
It’s been nearly twenty years since Brenda has truly seen her son. While she, Kayla, and their family friend Gale visit often, the prison’s visitation rooms separate the visitors from the loved ones with wire, bars, and a thick, scuffed glass that reflects glare from overhead lights. In order to see through the glass to her son, seated less than two feet away, Brenda must position her body to block the light, lining up her reflection with Cerron’s face, looking through her own face to see glimpses of his.
Shortly after her son was sentenced, Brenda got a tattoo over her heart: First Born, it reads. The ink, now nearly twenty years old, has begun to blur and fade.
Cerron’s drawing of America on the execution table is the cover image on Professor Frank Baumgartner’s book Deadly Justice: A Statistical Portrait of the Death Penalty. Cerron began drawing in high school. His art is his voice, Kayla says. You can’t look at his drawings and not see a human being behind them.
Tawana’s son, Quintel Augustine, has been on death row since 2002. She has boxes full of the letters and cards he’s sent her over the last sixteen years. Mother’s Day cards, letters after his grandmother passed, birthday cards, notes to pass on to his nieces and nephews. Letters of loss and longing and hope. They write to keep each other going forward, putting one foot in front of the other, while living under the threat of death.
You are in here, she tells him often, but you are not a part of this. This is not you. You just have to learn how to adapt until it’s time for you to be set free.
Nobody has ever seen me cry or break, but my husband, she said. Because I’m trying to hold up for everybody else… I’m the strong person trying to holding up, but when I get by myself I break. You know, I’m up in the middle of the night ’cause I’m crying, I’m missing him. I want to talk to him. I want to hold him. I want to touch him.
So, those are the things we go through with our loved ones being on death row.
It’s heartbreaking. He missed out on a lot of family things. Sometimes we don’t want to do nothing because he wasn’t here. It was times that we had family functions and I said, This is Quintel’s seat. Nobody sit there. When I go to church, I take his picture and I say This seat is taken. He’s sitting right here by me.
In 2018, Washington became the eighth state to repeal the death penalty since 2007. Twenty states now ban executions, and more repeal campaigns are underway. These efforts are a clear sign of a precipitous decline in public support for the death penalty. A 2018 Gallup poll showed that fewer than half of Americans believe the death penalty is applied fairly and support for the punishment is at historic lows.
JURIES ARE RETICENT TO SENTENCE PEOPLE TO DEATH
North Carolina’s last execution was in 2006. In recent years, fewer prosecutors are seeking the death penalty and, when they do, fewer juries are supporting it.
In 2012, 2015, 2017 and 2018, no one was sentenced to death in North Carolina. In Wake County, home to Raleigh and once among the state’s top death-sentencing counties, juries have rejected the death penalty at multiple recent capital trials.
POLLING SUGGESTS MONEY CAN BE BETTER SPENT
A 2017 poll of Wake County voters found strong evidence that death penalty support is waning. More than 60 percent said they would favor replacing the death penalty with life without parole, and nearly 70 percent said they would support a decision by the Wake County district attorney to stop seeking the death penalty at trial. More than half said the death penalty was applied unfairly, and 48 percent believed an innocent person had likely already been executed.
A 2013 poll of North Carolina voters also showed that a majority of people favor life sentences over executions:
68 percent favored replacing the death penalty with life in prison without parole if offenders were required to work and pay restitution to their victims’ families. As long as they are on death row, inmates cannot earn money to pay off their debts.
63 percent supported ending the death penalty if the money spent on capital punishment were redirected to crime fighting.
55 percent supported ending the death penalty if the money were spent on solving cold cases and victim services.
AT LEAST NINE INNOCENT NORTH CAROLINIANS HAVE BEEN SENTENCED TO DEATH
During the period since executions stopped in North Carolina, five death-sentenced men have been exonerated and released, bringing the total number of innocent people sentenced to die in North Carolina to nine.
FALSE OR MISLEADING FORENSIC EVIDENCE
The State Bureau of Investigation has also admitted to falsifying or mischaracterizing forensic evidence in hundreds of trials, including capital ones.