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.
Johnny remains on death row.
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.