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.
Why I came to death penalty litigation and why I want to stay
I first encountered the death penalty through the written word. Reports. News articles. Books.
There was the story of Earl Washington. Washington was convicted based solely on his confession. However, Washington had an intellectual disability, and was known to answer leading questions in a way he thought the questioner would like. He had confessed to four previous crimes where he was subsequently ruled out as a suspect because the victims stated it was not him. He also could not supply any details of the murder, including the victim’s race or the method of murder until police coached him on the details multiple times. Prosecutors altered a lab test that ruled Washington out as a suspect to call it “inconclusive.” His defense team did not even attempt to put on an argument for life at the penalty phase of the trial. It took 16 years on death row for him to finally be exonerated.
There are so many people on death row who the system has, at best, failed and, at worst, maliciously disregarded. Overwhelmingly, the people who are sentenced to death are people who have a mental illness or an intellectual disability. There is evidence of racial bias at every level of the process. Death sentences are often tainted by prosecutorial misconduct, racism, ineffective and sometimes even drunk defense council, or junk forensic science. It’s beyond outrageous; it’s an atrocity.
The more complicated my death penalty knowledge became, the simpler the answer became. I had always believed that the death penalty was inherently wrong. As a kid growing up in Georgia, I would feel sick every time there was an execution. But the stories and statistics drew me a picture of a system that is clearly, and undeniably broken beyond repair.
By the time I was finishing college, I refused to be passive any longer. The death penalty was a stain on the world, and if I was not fighting it, I was allowing it to happen. It is not as though I believed that our world is otherwise fair and perfect. But the death penalty always seemed like the final brick on a pyramid of failures, abandonments, and abuses. We abandon and abuse people and then kill them for it.
So, I went to law school with the intention of doing death penalty litigation. The road was not always straight from there, and I would be insincere if I painted myself as having gone down a direct path. As I learned more about our legal system and its deep failings, it sometimes felt, and still feels, as though there are a thousand different fires that need to be put out. Police brutality; government policies of discrimination; laws designed to punish people who are homeless; deep racial disparities in sentencing, arrest rates, and police use of force; patterns of disregard for the fourth amendment; criminalization of ordinary juvenile behavior in people of color that leads to a lifetime of closed doors.
Other times, I was tempted take the oodles of cash that other careers offered. Was it so wrong to want to own a peaceful mountain villa where I could sip champagne and grow grapes? Other attorneys assured me I would have plenty of time to devote myself to pro-bono work if I just had to scratch that itch. But I knew I would not be happy dedicating myself to something I did not believe in. I felt an obligation to work to end the injustice in the world.
More aware of the extent of the problems in our society and distracted by the possibility of money, I found myself looking for summer jobs. I saw a listing to work at an office that did death penalty litigation. I remembered why I went to law school in the first place. How I had felt as a child during executions in the state of Georgia. So I took the offer and spent my first law school summer doing death penalty work, and the semester after that, and again in North Carolina the next summer.
But this is not where the story ends.
As I dove into real cases and met people facing the possibility of execution, I came to realize that the death penalty does something almost as insidious as killing people. It robs all of us of our humanity by reducing the debate about whether to kill people into something academic and theoretical. Understanding that there are problems with the death penalty is like taking a photograph of the devastation from a hurricane from above. The photo accurately shows the devastation. But the snapshot alone cannot begin to describe the thousands of personal tragedies that the photograph represents.
It feels horrible to write it, but I too was affected by the cold separation the death penalty inflicts. I love the written word. But the academics of it afforded a distance from the tragedy of the death penalty.
But all that changed when I started my internships. I’ve now spent hundreds of hours researching and getting to know the people the state is trying to kill. I have been hugged by the mother of someone facing the death penalty. I have listened as a loved one described the time someone facing death saved their life. I used soft words and gentle humor to talk to a client who had not slept in a week; he could barely stay awake as he was talking to us. The attorney I was with tried carefully to convince him that this was a marathon and not a sprint, and it really was okay to get some sleep. But I am sure he did not believe us.
Small human details stick with me. A preference for shrimp ramen. Annoyingly adorable pet names they have with their significant other. Hatred of driving. Love of travel. Describing their horrifically abusive childhood as “normal” because they cannot conceive of a childhood without abuse. A deep love of music. The deep look of adoration on their face when describing the birth of their child. I’ve been forced to see murder within the context of a whole human life filled with love, empathy, anger, kindness, jealousy, achievement, despair, friends, family, hopes and dreams, belief and so much more.
I can no longer view the death penalty as a question about what we should do with murderers. Because I am no longer capable of seeing people’s lives as an academic debate. I can no longer see them as existing only in the context of a murder or in the context of a system. And I am ashamed that I wasn’t able to fully grasp that before. How I can awaken others to their fellow humans’ humanity when I did not fully grasp it to begin with?
A side effect of this has been that my empathy for death penalty supporters has increased, although I suppose not in a way they would appreciate. I had a moment of clarity one day. I was feeling particularly angry at the prospect that one person was likely going to be killed by the state. Extremely angry that we live in a society that would take his life without question or empathy. But I began thinking about everyone who was involved in the process, and what they were thinking. How they could rationalize their roles. How easy it was to dehumanize people they had never met and did not understand. How it could seem like the right thing to do when everyone around them was confirming that belief. I had developed a core belief that ordinary people are capable of violence, and it was important to approach all people who are a part of society’s violence with empathy.
This does not mean that my outrage has dissipated. To the contrary I think it is important that I never stop being outraged at outrageous things. Sometimes my cynicism gets to me. Sometimes trying to fix our broken world feels like banging my head against a wall. Sometimes I feel like I cannot possibly do enough to make a difference. But on the other hand, I truly believe that if everyone had the opportunity to see the realities of the death penalty up close, as I have, they could not be in favor of it.
The more complicated your knowledge about the death penalty is, the simpler the answer is. I hope we all continue to make our knowledge about the injustice in the world more complicated, and more simple.
Sall Ann Atkinson is a law student at the University of Georgia School of Law. Sally interned at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham, North Carolina, the summer of 2020.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 uncle, Peebles’ brother, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“I couldn’t help Henry in a system where the deck was stacked against him”
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?