North Carolina

North Carolina

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."

North Carolina Governor Formally Pardons Two Death Row Exonerees

North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory granted pardons to Leon Brown (l.) and Henry McCollum (center, r.), allowing the two men to receive compensation for their wrongful convictions. Brown and McCollum are half-brothers who were convicted of the 1983 murder of an 11-year-old girl and sentenced to death. McCollum spent 30 years on death row before being exonerated by DNA evidence in 2014. Brown was released after 30 years in jail, eight of them on death row. At the time of their arrests, Brown was 15 and McCollum 19. Both gave coerced confessions. An investigation by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission found DNA at the crime scene from a man who was in prison for a similar crime committed just a month later. Upon granting the pardons to Brown and McCollum, McCrory said, "This has been a very comprehensive and thoughtful process during the past nine months. Based upon the available evidence that I have personally reviewed, I am granting pardons of innocence to Henry McCollum and Leon Brown. It is the right thing to do." A review board may now determine whether to grant each man up to $750,000 in compensation.

EDITORIALS: Restarting North Carolina Executions Would Be "Unjust"

A recent editorial in The News & Observer (Raleigh, NC) has criticized legislative efforts to restart North Carolina's death penalty as "retrogressive" and "macabre."  The editorial opposes a bill that would allow executions to resume in North Carolina by "expanding the list of medical personnel who can monitor executions." In 2007, the North Carolina Medical Board said that doctor participation in executions violates professional ethics, effectively blocking any doctors from participating in executions. The new law would allow physician assistants, nurses, and emergency medical technicians to oversee executions in place of a doctor. The editorial said, "The death penalty is unnecessary, unjust and irreversible. Its use now is only an act of vengeance against a few prisoners who happened to be convicted in death penalty states and whose lawyers failed to negotiate the many legal options that could have spared them." It goes on to criticize the arbitrariness of the death penalty: "The erratic application of the death penalty makes it unfair and its unfairness is dangerously compounded by its finality. Wrongly convicted people could be executed and likely have been." It concludes, "The state Senate should reject this bill and, if necessary, Gov. Pat McCrory should veto it. Lives, perhaps even innocent lives, will depend on it."

North Carolina Innocence Commission Frees Another Inmate, 38 Years Late

The same Commission that freed former death row inmates Henry McCollum and Leon Brown in September exonerated another man who had been convicted of murder, Willie Womble (l.). The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission freed Womble on October 17, dismissing his 1976 first-degree murder conviction and life sentence. Womble had been convicted of acting as a lookout while another man, Joseph Perry, robbed a convenience store and killed the cashier. Both Perry and Womble received life sentences. Though Womble had always said he was innocent, he never filed a motion to challenge his conviction, perhaps because of his diminished mental capacity (a disability also present in McCollum and Brown). In 2013, Perry wrote a letter to the Innocence Commission stating that Womble was innocent. When Perry learned that his actual accomplice had died, he decided he could reveal Womble's innocence without putting the other man in prison. The Commission investigated Womble's case and found that his confession had been possibly coerced and written by a detective working on the case. Christine Mumma, executive director of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence, said, “In 2008, the legislature passed a law requiring the recording of interrogations. This is another case showing how important that is.” Granville County District Attorney Sam Currin supported Womble's exoneration, saying, “I apologized to Mr. Womble and to the family of Mr. Roy Bullock, who was the victim. I just felt it was right. The system and the state of North Carolina failed them for 39 years.” Although not sentenced to death, Womble's case shows the risks of capital punishment and the difficulty in discovering innocence.

ARTICLES: Excluding Blacks from Death Penalty Juries Violates Rights As Citizens

An article in the most recent issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review examines the practice of excluding African-Americans from jury service, particularly in death penalty cases in North Carolina. In Bias in the Box, Dax-Devlon Ross notes, "Alongside the right to vote, the right to serve on a jury is an enduring pillar of our democracy....Nevertheless, there is perhaps no arena of public life where racial bias has been as broadly overlooked or casually tolerated as jury exclusion." Ross traces the history of civil rights litigation that secured blacks the right to participate in juries, but he also shows the continued use of strategies to remove them from service. In particular, the repeal of North Carolina's Racial Justice Act in 2013 removed an important protection of equality in jury service. Before the act was rescinded, a special court reduced the sentences of four death row inmates because of patterns of racial bias in jury selection. In one case, a prosecutor's notes described potential jurors as "blk wino - drugs" and as living in a "blk, high drug" neighborhood. Ross quotes a number of potential black jurors who wanted to serve in North Carolina but felt they were excluded because of their race.

Sen. Leahy Cites North Carolina Exonerations in Calling for Legislaton

In a recent speech in the U.S. Senate calling for the reauthorization of the Justice for All Act, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) spoke about the recent exonerations of two men in North Carolina, citing the importance of DNA testing in their release from prison after 30 years: "The dozens of exonerations made possible by the Justice for All Act are testament enough to its value," Leahy said, "Henry Lee McCollum and Leon Brown are just the latest examples. The injustice they survived – and the fact that North Carolina nearly executed an innocent man–should dispel any doubt that this legislation is urgently needed." The Act was first passed in 2004 and has provided important assistance to states and local governments in using DNA evidence to convict the guilty and exonerate the innocent. The reauthorization is sponsored by Leahy and Senator John Cornyn (R-TX). The testing in the North Carolina case was funded by the Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Grant program, a portion of the Justice for All Act named for the first man exonerated from death row by DNA evidence. Read Leahy's statement below.

INNOCENCE: Attorney for Freed Death Row Prisoner Calls Case a "Tragedy"

In an op-ed for the Washington Post, Kenneth Rose, an attorney for the recently freed Henry McCollum, expressed his frustrations with the death-penalty system that allowed such mistakes to happen in the first place: "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?" He described the hardships McCollum experienced on death row, including seeing other inmates being executed. "He became so distraught during executions that he had to be put in isolation so he wouldn’t hurt himself," Rose said. McCollum only saw his family on rare occasions when they could make the long drive from New Jersey to North Carolina, and both his mother and grandmother died while he was imprisoned. Read the op-ed below.

POSSIBLE INNOCENCE: Originally Sentenced to Death, Brothers May Now Be Cleared in North Carolina

UPDATE: Both defendants freed after judge overturns convictions. EARLIER: Henry McCollum (l.) and Leon Brown (r.), two brothers who were convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 1984, may soon be freed because of evidence uncovered by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission. McCollum was 19 and Brown was 15 when they confessed to the rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie. Both men are intellectually disabled - McCollum has an IQ in the 60s and Brown has scored as low as 49 on IQ tests. McCollum and Brown have maintained their innocence since their trial, saying they were unaware they were signing a confession. “I’d never been under such pressure, people yelling and screaming at me,” McCollum said of his interrogation. “I was scared, and was just trying to get out of that police station and go home.” In 2010, Brown, who is now serving a life sentence for rape after his murder conviction was thrown out, contacted the Innocence Commission about his case. The Commission found DNA evidence near the crime scene belonging to another man, Roscoe Artis, who was sentenced to death for a crime similar to the one for which McCollum and Brown were sentenced to death. (Artis' sentence was later reduced to life.) On September 2, defense attorneys for Brown and McCollum will present the evidence and ask a Robeson County judge to free both men. Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt, who is not opposing the request, said, “The whole case rests on the confessions, and the DNA evidence threw those confessions under the bus.”

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