During his death penalty trial, Ronald Frye’s alcoholic attorney drank heavily and failed to investigate Frye’s background, a crucial part of representing a client on trial for his life. As a result, the jury never heard mitigating evidence that likely would have saved Frye’s life. After the trial, some of the jurors said they would not have voted for a death sentence if they had known about the severe abuse Frye suffered as a child.
Frye’s lawyer, Tom Portwood, later died of an alcohol related illness. Before his death, he admitted to drinking 12 shots of rum every night during Frye’s trial. Portwood, who was an alcoholic for 30 years, said on his deathbed that he often started drinking when he woke up in the morning, that he went to court drunk, and that many people were convicted and imprisoned because of his malpractice.
The U.S. Constitution guarantees the accused the right to an adequate defense. Ronald Wayne Frye, who was executed in 2001, went to his death without receiving that essential benefit.
Quick Facts: Ronald Frye
- Race: White
- County: Catawba
- Date of Crime: January 24, 1993
- Victim: Ralph Childress, White, Age 70
- Conviction Date: November 15, 1993
- Execution Date: August 31, 2001
- Errors: Executed because his severely alcoholic lawyer failed to present mitigating evidence.
Frye was convicted in 1993 of robbing and stabbing to death his landlord, Ralph Childress, who had just given Frye an eviction notice.
Frye, more than likely, would have been sentenced to life imprisonment if not for Portwood’s failures. The U.S. Supreme Court and statutory law say that 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. Frye’s jury never heard the mitigating evidence of his horrific childhood abuse, which included his mother selling him to strangers when he was a toddler.
Ronald Frye was one of three boys who were abandoned by their father. His mother did not have the means or knowledge to raise them. At the age of 18 months, Ronald was rushed to the hospital after drinking from a glass of kerosene that was customarily left sitting on the floor.
When Ronald was 3 years old, his mother sold him and one of his brothers to a couple at the restaurant where she worked. Ronald’s new father was a violent alcoholic who regularly used a bullwhip on him, leaving him curled up in a corner, beaten and bloodied.
It took six years for a teacher to finally notice the scars covering his body.
The police were called, the abusive man was arrested, and Ronald was sent to an orphanage. Photographs of his 9-year-old scarred body were used by the chief of police to teach rookie officers how to recognize child abuse.
Ronald ended up in the custody of the biological father who deserted him at birth, and who was also an abusive alcoholic. He dragged Ronald out of bed to watch as he beat the boy’s stepmother. The stepmother left the home after a particularly severe beating. Neighbors reported Ronald had been abandoned; his father wasn’t home, he was hungry, and the house was maggot-infested. Eventually, Ronald was given back to the mother who had sold him as a toddler.
As an adult, Frye never received any 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, for which Frye was deeply remorseful.
After Frye’s trial, his lawyer’s alcoholism became so publicly debilitating that Portwood was pulled off another death penalty case and sent to a detoxification facility. Frye was executed on August 31, 2001.