Wake DA pursues death penalty even for people with severe mental illness

Wake DA Lorrin FreemanFor nearly two decades, district attorneys in North Carolina have had discretion to decide which cases are serious enough to warrant the death penalty. In a state where hundreds of murders are committed each year, only a handful of people face capital trials. As public sentiment turns against executions, most N.C. counties haven’t put anyone on trial for the death penalty in more than a decade.

That’s what makes Wake DA Lorrin Freeman’s decisions about the death penalty so egregious. Freeman represents one of the state’s most forward-looking urban counties, yet she pursues the death penalty with the abandon of a 1990s prosecutor ignorant of pesky “modern” concepts like mental illness and racism.

Right now, Freeman is fighting to put Kendrick Gregory on trial for the death penalty — even though he’s in a psychotic state so severe that he refuses to bathe or communicate with his attorneys.

Most of the world has banned the death penalty for people with severe mental illness. In North Carolina, it’s illegal to put a person on trial who is so mentally ill that he can’t understand the proceedings, and Freeman doesn’t dispute that Gregory is acutely psychotic. Freeman’s solution? Force Gregory to take psychiatric medications so she can get her shot at sending him to death row.

In the year before the crime, Gregory was committed to a mental hospital eight times. Doctors have diagnosed him with psychosis and schizoid effective disorder, among other things. Most DAs consider severe mental illness, which impairs a person’s ability to control their actions, understand their crime, and participate in their defense, a reason not to pursue the death penalty. In theory at least, the death penalty is meant to be reserved for the worst crimes and the most culpable defendants, and someone with severe mental illness is clearly less culpable. But, apparently, not to Freeman.

It seems she has little sympathy for people with mental illness, even when they’re innocent. James Blackmon was sentenced to life in prison in 1988, after he confessed to murder while delusional. Police interviewed Blackmon over and over while he was in a mental hospital and wearing a Superman cape. Eventually, they extracted a garbled confession. In addition to claiming responsibility for a four-year-old murder, Blackmon told police he could cause earthquakes and use telepathic powers to control other people.

Blackmon didn’t know the most important details of the crime and, the evidence now shows, was almost certainly in New York at the time. A fingerprint found at the scene matched another man with a long criminal record. And when an eye witness failed to identify Blackmon in a photo lineup, police hid the report of the lineup.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of his innocence, Freeman argued last year that Blackmon should remain in prison because he did not have DNA evidence. Thankfully, the three-judge panel hearing his case disagreed with Freeman and freed Blackmon after more than thirty-five years of wrongful imprisonment. If the case were tried today, Freeman may well have sought the death penalty against Blackmon.

Since Freeman took office in 2014, Wake has sought the death penalty at trial more than any other North Carolina county. And in almost every case, the defendant has been a black man. Freeman would have voters believe she has no choice but to pursue the death penalty, but it’s simply not true. She’s making a conscious choice to put people with severe mental illness on trial for their lives, to fight to keep innocent people in prison, and to disproportionately seek the death penalty against people of color. The citizens of Wake County deserve better.