Do innocent people get the death penalty in North Carolina? The answer is a clear yes. Twelve innocent men have been exonerated after receiving the death penalty in North Carolina since 1973. They served a combined 157 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. Four of them spent more than a decade on death row. One — Henry McCollum — spent 30 years there before finally being exonerated by DNA. In many cases, it was largely by luck that these men were able to prove their innocence before being executed.
People of color are far more likely to be wrongly convicted, and North Carolina’s exonerees bear that out. Ten of the twelve are Black, and an eleventh is Latino. Seven of them were accused of killing white victims, another factor proven to result in harsher punishments, especially for Black men.
More exonerations are likely, as investigations continue to uncover wrongfully convicted people in prisons across the nation. In case after case, investigators have found systemic problems. Shoddy police investigations. Hidden or lost evidence. False confessions. Dishonest witnesses, some of whom were paid rewards for their false testimony.
One scientific study found that the death penalty is so deeply flawed that one in every 25 death sentences is imposed on an innocent person.
Read the stories of innocent people who faced the death penalty in North Carolina:
Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were intellectually disabled teenagers when they were taken from their homes in rural Robeson County, coerced into confessing to a brutal murder they had nothing to do with, and sentenced to death. The brothers spent 31 years in prison before DNA testing finally proved them innocent.
On Sept. 26, 1983, Sabrina Buie’s small body was found lying in a soybean field in Robeson County. She was 11 years old. She had been beaten, raped, and suffocated. The crime shocked the tiny town of Red Springs, and police were eager to solve it. Believing the killer must have come from outside the community, they began searching for suspects from out of town.
One police officer came across a high school student who repeated a rumor she’d heard at school: Henry McCollum, a teenager from New Jersey who was visiting family in Red Springs, had been involved in the crime. Henry, who was 19, went to the police station voluntarily. Within five hours, he signed a confession full of grisly details. Just a half hour later, his 15-year-old brother Leon Brown also confessed. Both were intellectually disabled and were alone in the room with investigators, who wrote the confessions for them. Both quickly retracted their confessions, but it was too late. In 1984, a jury sentenced them to death.
Leon appealed his conviction and was eventually resentenced to life in prison. But Henry remained on death row for three decades and became notorious nationwide. 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 the example of a brutal rapist and child killer who deserved to be executed.
It took until 2014 for DNA testing to finally prove that neither brother had anything to do with the murder. The true culprit was a serial rapist who lived just a few hundred yards from where the girl’s body was found, and who committed an eerily similar rape and murder in the same small town just a few weeks after Sabrina Buie’s killing.
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. The story of their historic exoneration is one of police and prosecutorial misconduct, and it demonstrates just how difficult it is to overturn even the most egregious wrongful convictions.
Henry and Leon are the most egregious example of how innocent people get the death penalty in North Carolina. To read the full story Henry and Leon’s dramatic exoneration, read the Saved From the Executioner by the Center for Death Penalty Litigation
Eleven of 12 jurors wanted to execute Darryl Hunt, but one refused to waver. Only because of that single juror was Darryl spared the death penalty for a rape and murder he did not commit. He was not spared, however, from spending 19 years in prison — 10 of those after DNA evidence showed that he was not the culprit.
In 1984, a 25-year-old newspaper copy editor, Deborah Sykes, was raped and stabbed to death while on her way to work in Winston-Salem. The crime against a young white woman sparked community outrage, and 19-year-old Hunt was quickly arrested.
At his 1985 trial, the only evidence tying Darryl to the crime was the testimony of witnesses who said they saw him with the victim before her death, or saw him at a hotel disposing of bloody towels. Their identification of Darryl was shaky at best. Darryl testified that he did not know Deborah Sykes and had no involvement with the crime. He 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 on appeal because prosecutors had relied on the statements of a witness who later recanted. 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 imprisonment.
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, and 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 convicted felons and found a perfect match — a man who had committed a similar rape just months after Deborah Sykes’ murder. He confessed, and Darryl was finally freed. Darryl received a rare pardon of innocence from the governor.
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.”
In a loss to us all, Darryl died in 2016.
For more, watch The Trials of Darryl Hunt, a gripping documentary about Darryl’s 19-year fight for freedom and read Professor Mark Rabil’s My Three Decades with Darryl Hunt. Four years out of law school and just twenty-nine-years-old, Mark was appointed to represent Darryl Hunt. He couldn’t know then that he would spend decades fighting for his client’s freedom. “To be clear, my anger over the injustices in Darryl‘s case was well-founded, as shown by the following,” writes Professor Rabil, before breaking down ten reasons for his justifiable outrage, including documented racism and falsification and misrepresentation of information and evidence.
Levon “Bo” Jones served 15 years in prison, 13 of those on death row, after being wrongfully convicted of robbery and murder. The state’s case was based almost entirely on the testimony of a single witness, who presented at least five conflicting stories to police throughout the course of the investigation. Despite widespread recognition of Bo’s innocence prior to his exoneration, he was not freed until the witness officially recanted her testimony in 2008.
Many people on death row have been sent there by the testimony of a single witness. Often, it’s a person with something to gain: testimony in exchange for a cash reward or a reduced sentence for their own crime. A number of the men and women sentenced with such flimsy evidence remain on death row today. But Bo was lucky enough to find a judge who recognized that the evidence against him was flimsy and unconvincing. The judge freed Bo in 2006, thirteen years after he was sentenced to death.
Leamon Grady, 67, was robbed and shot in his Duplin County home in 1987. Police failed to collect key evidence from the crime scene, like fingerprints and blood samples, so were without a suspect for three years. Only after they posted a $4,000 reward for information did Bo’s ex-girlfriend, Lovely Lorden, come forward to say Bo was the culprit. Lovely gave shifting stories of a robbery that, on first telling, Bo committed alone, but then expanded to involve several people. At Bo’s trial, the jury never heard about the $4,000 reward Lovely received for her testimony.
Lovely officially recanted her testimony in 2008, saying that officers coached her and threatened her with arrest if she did not testify against Bo. Bo was one of three men who were wrongfully convicted based on Lovely’s accusations, but the only one sentenced to death. All three have now been exonerated.
At Alan Gell’s 1998 murder trial, the crucial evidence came from two teenage girls. The girls said they watched Alan shoot Allen Ray Jenkins to death in the driveway of Jenkins’ Bertie County home. It happened on the night of April 3rd, 1995, they told the jury, during a robbery gone wrong. The jury sent Alan, then 22, to death row. In exchange for their testimony, the girls were allowed to plead guilty to second-degree murder and sentenced to just ten years.
Alan’s defense attorneys wouldn’t find out until years later that the prosecutor had a recording of the girls plotting to make up a story to incriminate Alan. What’s more, Mr. Jenkins’ body was not discovered until April 14th, eleven days after the robbery the girls described. And the prosecutor withheld statements from seventeen of Mr. Jenkins’ friends and neighbors, who told investigators they saw him alive well after April 3rd. The statements proved that Alan could not have been the killer, because he was out of state or in jail on a car theft charge from April 4th until after the time Mr. Jenkins’ was found dead.
In 2002, four years after Alan was sent to death row, a judge overturned his conviction because of the hidden evidence. The state medical examiner reversed her earlier testimony, and said she now believed the date of death was days after Alan could have been involved in the killing. Nevertheless, the N.C. Attorney General’s Office continued to press for Alan’s execution. In 2004, the state retried Alan for Mr. Jenkins’ murder.
The jury deliberated less than three hours before acquitting Alan and sending him home. He married the love of his life in 2015.
In 2008, 14 years after Glen “Ed” Chapman had been sentenced to death, a judge granted him a new trial: “The notion that a defendant can be put to death when no crime in fact occurred is troubling at best,” Superior Court Judge Robert Ervin wrote. He also cited hidden evidence, destroyed documents, the use of weak, circumstantial evidence, and false testimony by the lead investigator.
In the summer of 1992, the bodies of Tenene Yvette Conley and Betty Jean Ramseur were found in abandoned houses in Hickory. Betty Jean Ramseur had been hit in the head and Tenene Conley, police said, had been strangled. Both murders were pinned on Ed. Ed admitted to using drugs with both women and to having consensual sex with one of them, but said he was innocent of murder. In late 1994, a jury sentenced him to death.
Ed’s two trial lawyers were notorious alcoholics. One was disciplined by the bar for alcohol abuse and the other, Tom Portwood, later admitted to drinking 12 shots a day and going to court drunk. They failed to do even the most basic investigation of their client’s guilt. Had they hired forensic experts, they would have learned that Tenene Conley most likely died of a cocaine overdose and was not the victim of a crime at all. The state also withheld witness statements saying Conley was seen alive after the day she’d supposedly been killed, with a man who had a record of violence toward her.
In Betty Jean Ramseur’s case, there was scant evidence linking Ed to her death, aside from a homeless man who claimed to have seen the two together around the location where her body was found. The jury never heard that another man confessed to killing her, or that a different suspect had been identified in a photo lineup.
After a judge granted Ed a new trial, prosecutors elected not to re-try him and he was set free.
During his years in prison, Ed’s two young sons grew up without a father and his wife died from liver cancer. After his exoneration, he traveled around the state to bring attention to flaws in the criminal justice system. “I can forgive,” he said. “That doesn’t mean I have to forget.”
At the urging of a DA who often wore a noose-shaped lapel pin, an all-white jury sentenced Jonathan Hoffman to death.
In 1995, Danny Cook was found shot to death in his Union County jewelry store. Police had no leads until months later, when an anonymous tip led them to Jonathan. There was no physical evidence linking Jonathan to the murder, and when the case went to trial in 1996, the only evidence came from witnesses who said Jonathan confessed the crime to them.
One witness was a folk healer who claimed to have sold Jonathan a special root that would protect him from arrest. The star witness, however, was Jonathan’s cousin, Johnell Porter, who received thousands of dollars, immunity for crimes he admitted on the witness stand, and a reduced sentence for a bank robbery he committed. Prosecutors made the deal in secret, hiding it from both the jury and the judge.
Prosecutors Ken Honeycutt and Scott Brewer were later criminally and civilly investigated for not revealing the deals promised to the witness — and for removing a reference to the deal from the case notes they handed over to the judge. After the secret deal was exposed, a judge granted Jonathan a new trial in 2004. In 2006, Johnell told the Charlotte Observer that he lied at Jonathan’s trial to get revenge on his cousin, because he believed Jonathan had stolen money from him and gotten him in trouble with the police.
Prosecutors finally agreed to drop all charges against Jonathan in 2007.