North Carolina

North Carolina

Fair Punishment Project Issues Report on Deadliest Prosecutors

A new report by Harvard Law School's Fair Punishment Project has found that a small number of overzealous prosecutors with high rates of misconduct have a hugely disproportionate impact on the death penalty in the United States. The report, "America's Top Five Deadliest Prosecutors: How Overzealous Personalities Drive the Death Penalty," shows that, by themselves, these prosecutors are responsible for more than 440 death sentences, the equivalent of 15% of the entire U.S. death row population today. Exploring what it calls "the problem of personality-driven capital sentencing," the report details the effects of Joe Freeman Britt of Robeson County, North Carolina; Robert Macy of Oklahoma County, Oklahoma; Donald Myers of the 11th Judicial District of South Carolina; Lynne Abraham of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Johnny Holmes of Harris County, Texas. Britt, Macy, and Myers personally prosecuted a combined 131 cases that resulted in death sentences, while Abraham and Holmes oversaw offices that the report says imposed 108 and 201 death sentences, respectively. They also disproportionately sent innocent people to death row, prosecuting 1 out of 20 of the nation's death-row exonerees. The report found similar patterns involving these prosecutors, including high rates of prosecutorial misconduct, statements and actions that revealed a win-at-all-costs mentality, and a sharp decrease in death sentences once they and their proteges left office. Britt, Macy, and Myers were found to have committed misconduct in one-third to 46% of the death penalty cases they prosecuted. Prosecutors in Abraham's and Holmes' offices were found to have engaged in misconduct, including racially-biased jury selection and failures to disclose favorable evidence. Of the five prosecutors profiled in the report, only Myers—who is not seeking re-election—is still in office. After the other four prosecutors left office, the number of death sentences has declined significantly. Robeson County has imposed two death sentences in the last 10 years, Oklahoma County and Philadelphia County have each imposed three in six years, and Harris County dropped from an average of 12 death sentences a year during Holmes' last decade as prosecutor to one a year since 2008.

NEW VOICES: Former Chief Justice of North Carolina Supreme Court Questions Constitutionality of Death Penalty

I. Beverly Lake, Jr.—a staunch supporter of North Carolina's death penalty during his years as a State Senator and who, as a former Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, repeatedly voted to uphold death sentences—has changed his stance on capital punishment. In a recent piece for The Huffington Post, Lake said he not only supported capital punishment as a State Senator, he "vigorously advocated" for it and "cast my vote at appropriate times to uphold that harsh and most final sentence" as Chief Justice. His views have evolved, he said, primarily because of concerns about wrongful convictions. "My faith in the criminal justice system, which had always been so steady, was shaken by the revelation that in some cases innocent men and women were being convicted of serious crimes," he wrote. However, his concerns about the death penalty are broader than just the question of innocence. Lake says he also questions whether legal protections for people with diminished culpability as a result of intellectual disability, mental illness, or youth, are adequate. "For intellectual disability, we can use an IQ score to approximate impairment, but no similar numeric scale exists to determine just how mentally ill someone is, or how brain trauma may have impacted their culpability. Finally, even when evidence of diminished culpability exists, some jurors have trouble emotionally separating the characteristic of the offender from the details of the crime," he said. He describes the case of Lamondre Tucker, a Louisiana death row inmate who was 18 at the time of the offense and has an IQ of 74, placing him just outside the Supreme Court's bans on the execution of juveniles and people with intellectual diabilities. Lake argues, "Taken together, these factors indicate that he is most likely just as impaired as those individuals that the Court has determined it is unconstitutional to execute." He concludes, "Our inability to determine who possesses sufficient culpability to warrant a death sentence draws into question whether the death penalty can ever be constitutional under the Eighth Amendment. I have come to believe that it probably cannot."

Darryl Hunt, North Carolina Exoneree Who Narrowly Escaped Death Sentence, Dies 12 Years After Release

Darryl Hunt (pictured), an exoneree and anti-death penalty advocate, was found dead in Winston-Salem, North Carolina on March 13, 2016. Hunt was wrongfully convicted of the 1984 rape and murder of Deborah Sykes, a newspaper copy editor. Prosecutors sought the death penalty against him, but he received a life sentence because a single juror refused to vote for death. His conviction was overturned in 1989 and prosecutors offered Hunt a deal for time served, in exchange for pleading guilty. Continuing to assert his innocence, Hunt refused the offer, and he was retried, convicted, and again sentenced to life. In 1994, a DNA test excluded him as the perpetrator of the crime, but it took another 10 years of appeals before he was released in 2004. After his exoneration, Hunt became an outspoken opponent of the death penalty. Steve Dear, executive director of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, said, "I think everyone who saw Darryl speak was deeply moved by the resilience and kindness and gentleness with which he spoke." But Hunt was firm about the dangers of the death penalty, saying: "A system that can perpetrate an injustice like this has no business deciding life and death. If I had gotten a death sentence, there’s no doubt in my mind, I would have been executed.” Hunt's case was covered in an eight-part series in the Winston-Salem Journal and was the subject of a documentary film, The Trials of Darryl Hunt, both of which were critical of the racial bias and official misconduct that contributed to his wrongful conviction.

Wake County, North Carolina Jury Hands Down Life Sentence in 6th Consecutive Capital Trial

Wake County North Carolina jury voted on February 22 to sentence capital defendant Travion Devonte Smith to life without parole, making Smith's case the sixth consecutive Wake County death penalty trial to end with a life sentence. Though Wake County was among the 2% of counties responsible for a majority of inmates on U.S. death rows as of 2013, the county has not produced any new death sentences since 2007. District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said that her office pursued the death penalty in Smith's case because of "the brutality of this murder." Yet the jury needed just one hour to conclude that the 38 mitigating factors offered by the defense - including Smith's troubled upbringing, abandonment by his mother, and lack of access to mental health treatment he had been diagnosed as needing - outweighed the two aggravating factors the prosecution presented. Defense attorney Jonathon Broun also argued to the jury that Smith's actions had been influenced by a charismatic, older and more culpable co-defendant, Ronald Anthony, and that Smith was "not even the worst of the worst when it comes to this tragic and heartbreaking crime." Prosecutors had permitted Anthony to plead guilty to first-degree murder in 2015 to avoid the death penalty. Freeman indicated that the jury verdicts in recent Wake County capital cases may be a signal for her office to reconsider pursuing the death penalty. The jury verdicts reflect larger national trends; in 2015, just 49 people were sentenced to death across the United States, a 40-year low that represents an 84% drop from the peak of 315 death sentences in 1996. Broun said, "We can punish people harshly and seriously for first-degree murder without using the death penalty."

NEW VOICES: Execution Secrecy "Has No Place in a Democracy"

A recent op-ed by former Texas Governor Mark White (pictured) and former Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerald Kogan criticized a recently passed North Carolina law that imposes secrecy on the source of lethal injection drugs and removes execution procedures from public review and comment. The authors said the new law will only prolong litigation, rather than ending North Carolina's hold on executions, as intended. The op-ed also maintained that the new policy violates democratic principles: "The foundation of our constitutional republic lies in accountability and transparency, enabling American citizens to learn and debate about policy. Yet citizens cannot engage in robust conversations when basic information is hidden." Arguing that both supporters and opponents of the death penalty should oppose secrecy, they said, "Regardless of our views on the death penalty, Americans must maintain a principled approach to its implementation. The standard ought to be the U.S. Constitution, which mandates the government impose no cruel and unusual punishments. As long as states implement the death penalty, we must ensure they follow this constitutional standard."

STUDIES: Racial Bias in Jury Selection

A new study of trials in Caddo Parish, Louisiana, revealed that potential jurors who were black were much more likely to be struck from juries than non-blacks. The results were consistent with findings from Alabama, North Carolina, and other parts of Louisiana, highlighting an issue that will be reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court this fall. In Caddo Parish, an area known for its many death sentences, prosecutors used peremptory strikes against 46% of black jurors, but only 15% of other jurors, according to the study by Reprieve Australia. The racial composition of the juries appeared to make a difference in the ultimate outcome of the cases. The study found that no defendants were acquitted by juries with 2 or fewer black jurors, but 19% were acquitted when 5 or more jurors were black. In an Alabama study, prosecutors used peremptory strikes to remove 82% of eligible black potential jurors from trials in which the death penalty was imposed. A study of death penalty cases in North Carolina found that prosecutors struck 53% of black potential jurors but only 26% of others. (Click image to enlarge.)

EDITORIALS: North Carolina Newspapers Critique Execution Secrecy Law

On August 6, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed a law that removed the requirement that a physician be present at executions and shrouded in secrecy many elements of the lethal injection process, including the specific drugs to be used and the suppliers of those drugs. By eliminating the physician-participation requirement, the law attempted to remove a legal hurdle that has halted executions in North Carolina since 2006. Two major state newspapers sharply criticized the new law, calling it, "macabre" and "an ugly spectacle." The Fayetteville Observer said, "We need thoughtful discussion of the issue and whether we're imposing a fair sentence or simply seeking revenge for a terrible crime. What we don't need is a General Assembly slicing away at reasonable public understanding of the state's execution protocols, instead choosing to wrap it all in secrecy." The News & Observer (Raleigh) called the law "a horribly misguided idea," citing the "gruesome outcomes" of experimental lethal injection protocols in other states. The editorial concluded, "Rather than put executions on a fast track, North Carolina should abandon them altogether."

STUDY: "The Hidden Costs of Wrongful Capital Prosecutions in North Carolina"

A new study by North Carolina's Center for Death Penalty Litigation examines the financial and human costs of cases in which, "prosecutors sought the death penalty despite a clear lack of evidence, resulting in acquittal or dismissal of charges." The report found 56 such cases in North Carolina since 1989, in which innocent people spent a total of 112 years spent in jail, with $2.4 million spent in defense costs alone in these weak death penalty cases. The authors compare these cases to those in which people were wrongfully convicted and sent to death row, saying, "We found cases in which state actors hid exculpatory evidence, relied on junk science, and pressured witnesses to implicate suspects. In several cases, there was no physical evidence and charges were based solely on the testimony of highly unreliable witnesses, such as jail inmates, co-defendants who were given lighter sentences in return for cooperation, and paid informants. Reliance on such witnesses was a factor in more than 60 percent of the cases we studied." In addition to the clear-cut time and financial costs, the study also describes the effects of wrongful prosecutions on the defendants: "In addition to leaving many in financial ruin, the state does not even do these exonorees the favor of clearing their criminal histories. They must request a court order to expunge their criminal records, an expensive and lengthy process. Those who were already living at the margins of society often struggled to find jobs, and some fell into homelessness after they were released from jail." The authors conclude by contrasting the intended use of the death penalty with their findings: "A punishment as serious as execution should be pursued only in the most ironclad cases: those with the strongest evidence of guilt and in which the circumstances of the crime make the defendant more culpable than most—the 'worst of the worst.' Yet, the reality is entirely different. This report uncovers a system in which the threat of execution is used in the majority of cases, regardless of the strength of the evidence."

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