North Carolina

North Carolina

73% of North Carolina's Death Row Sentenced Under Obsolete Laws, New Report Says

Most of the 142 prisoners on North Carolina’s death row were convicted under obsolete and outdated death-penalty laws and would not have been sentenced to death if tried today, according to a new report by the Center for Death Penalty Litigation. The report by the Durham-based defense organization, titled Unequal Justice: How Obsolete Laws and Unfair Trials Created North Carolina’s Outsized Death Row, says that nearly three-quarters of the prisoners on the nation’s sixth-largest death row were tried and sentenced before the state enacted significant reforms in prosecution, defense, and trial practices. “[I]f these people on death row had been tried under modern laws, most of them would be serving life without parole sentences instead of facing execution,” said Gretchen Engel, the Center’s executive director.

Seventy-three percent of the men and women on North Carolina’s death row (103 prisoners) were tried and sentenced to death before July 2001, when North Carolina repealed a 1990s-era law that had required prosecutors to pursue the death penalty in every aggravated murder case, irrespective of reasons that might call for mercy, and created a statewide office to represent indigent defendants in capital trials and appeals. North Carolina was the only state in the country that denied prosecutors the discretion to decide when to seek the death penalty, and as a result, there were more than fifty capital trials in the state each year, including cases involving defendants who were seriously mentally ill or intellectually disabled or were comparatively minor participants in a murder. Capital trials fell to an average of sixteen per year in the decade following the change. The creation of the capital defender office that same year dramatically improved the quality of representation, and further reduced the number of cases in which death verdicts were returned. Since then, North Carolina has enacted additional reforms aimed at ensuring fairer trials in capital cases. In October 2004, the state became the first in the country to require prosecutors to make all witness files, police reports, other investigative records, and physical evidence available to capital defendants prior to trial. In 2008, it adopted a series of eyewitness identification and interrogation protocols designed to prevent mistaken identifications and false or coerced confessions.

The report states that during the 1990s, before the reforms were enacted, “courtrooms were dominated by prosecutors like Ken Honeycutt in Stanly County, who celebrated new death sentences by handing out noose lapel pins to his assistant prosecutors.” “Today,” Engel said, “we are living in a different world .... Public support for the death penalty is at a 50-year low, and North Carolina has stopped executing people. Juries now see life without parole as a harsh and adequate punishment for the worst crimes.” That, however, has produced its own historical inequities. In terms of moral culpability, Engel said, the defendants facing trial in 1995 and 2015 “are equal. And yet, one of them is being subjected to execution and other is not and that is an unfairness that as a fair society, we can not tolerate.”

North Carolina Bar Files Ethics Complaint Against Lawyer Accused of Fleecing Intellectually Disabled Death-Row Exonerees

Florida lawyer Patrick Megaro is facing an official complaint by the North Carolina State Bar for allegedly defrauding death-row exonerees Henry McCollum (pictured, right) and Leon Brown (pictured, left), and taking a third of the compensation granted to the two men. Half-brothers McCollum and Brown were exonerated in 2014 after spending 30 years in prison, some on death row, for the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl. Both men are intellectually disabled, a factor that made them more vulnerable to wrongful conviction, and, the Bar complaint says, vulnerable to exploitation by Megaro. After McCollum and Brown were exonerated and formally pardoned by Governor Pat McCrory, they sought compensation from North Carolina for their wrongful convictions and incarceration. Megaro became McCollum's and Brown's lawyer in March 2015, after two women who claimed to be advocating on behalf of the brothers persuaded them to fire the lawyers who had been representing them in their compensation action and to hire Megaro's firm instead. The brothers received compensation awards of $750,000, but Megaro—who the complaint says did virtually no work on their exonerations or compensation cases—took $250,000 in fees from each man. Within seven months, McCollum was out of money and taking out high-interest loans that Megaro arranged and approved. Megaro also negotiated a proposed settlement of the brothers' wrongful prosecution lawsuit in which he was to receive $400,000 of a $1 million payment. The complaint alleges that Megaro committed 16 ethical violations, including lying to judges, double-billing his clients, and engaging in fraud by signing for loans with a 42% interest rate. It also alleges that he violated his duty to act competently when he failed to determine the police department's insurance policy limits before agreeing to settle the brothers' wrongful prosecution case. McCollum expressed his disappointment with Megaro, saying, "He took money that he should have never took. I could have that money right now." According to the Marshall Project, "Wednesday’s complaint begins a legal process similar to a civil lawsuit that will likely culminate in a public trial of the charges, with three members of the state’s Disciplinary Hearing Commission sitting as judge and jury." Megaro—whose law partner derided the disciplinary action as "a political prosecution"—could face disbarment if he is found guilty.

Jurors in Henry McCollum Case Reflect on How They Sentenced an Innocent Man to Death

Four years after intellectually disabled brothers Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were exonerated of the 1983 rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl in North Carolina, jurors in McCollum's case met with members of his defense team and reflected on how they sentenced an innocent man to death. In a September 6 op-ed in the Raleigh News & Observer, Kristin Collins—Associate Director of Public Information for North Carolina’s Center for Death Penalty Litigation and a former News & Observer reporter—writes that the jurors’ responses varied from relief, to shame, to fear of God’s wrath, to tears at he pain of even thinking about the case. “All [the jurors] were denied the information they needed to reach a fair verdict,” Collins observed. “I’ve been trying to figure out, where did we go wrong?,” one juror told Collins. “I feel like we got duped by the system,” he said. McCollum and Brown—age 19 and 15, respectively, at the time Sabrina Buie was raped and murdered—were convicted and condemned for her death in 1984. The main evidence against them were coerced confessions obtained during prolonged interrogations. Brown spent eight years on death row before the Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional for children under age 16, and his sentence was reduced to life imprisonment. But McCollum remained on North Carolina’s death row for more than 30 years, having lost of all his court appeals, until DNA evidence uncovered by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission disclosed that neither he nor Brown had raped and killed the young girl. At the time of his release in 2014, McCollum was North Carolina’s longest-serving death-row prisoner. The op-ed sheds light on how the gruesome facts of the case produced an unjust verdict and death sentence. Jurors recalled the graphic crime-scene photos and McCollum’s confession, which it turns out had been written by the police. “Even McCollum’s defense attorneys admitted his guilt, believing the jury would spare him if he accepted responsibility,” Collins writes. One juror believed that if McCollum was on trial, he’d probably done it: “his biggest regret,” Collins wrote, “is that he trusted prosecutors to tell the truth.” And what the jury did not know was of overwhelming importance. “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,” Collins writes. “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.” Collins reports that the jurors “remembered McCollum at the defense table, silent and unresponsive, like a confused and broken child.” One seemed especially remorseful. “I should have followed my conscience,” she said. “I hope he can forgive me.”

North Carolina Death-Row Prisoners Challenge Retroactive Repeal of Racial Justice Act

Four African-American death-row prisoners in North Carolina whose death sentences had been overturned for racial discrimination have challenged the constitutionality of subsequent state court rulings that reinstated their death sentences and then denied them a new hearing on their discrimination claims. The four—Marcus Robinson (pictured), Tilmon Golphin, Quintel Augustine, and Christina Walters—had overturned their death sentences in 2012 under the North Carolina Racial Justice Act (RJA), presenting evidence that a multi-decade systematic exclusion of African Americans from death-penalty juries in North Carolina had infected their cases with racial bias. However, the North Carolina Supreme Court vacated those rulings, saying state prosecutors deserved an opportunity to present additional evidence, and the North Carolina legislature repealed the RJA. The trial court then ruled that, because of the repeal, it could no longer hear the prisoners' cases. Backed by a broad coalition of civil rights groups and several former prosecutors, the prisoners filed briefs in the North Carolina Supreme Court on July 16, 2018 arguing that the lower court ruling violated numerous constitutional guarantees, including due process and the Double Jeopardy clauses of the state and federal constitutions. After nearly three weeks of testimony in Robinson’s case, which detailed state prosecutors’ use of jury strikes in 173 capital trials between 1990 and 2010, Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks overturned Robinson’s death sentence, finding that the “evidence showed the persistent, pervasive, and distorting role of race in jury selection.” Reviewing expert testimony about prosecutors’ choices to accept or strike more than 7,400 jurors, Weeks determined that prosecutors had systematically excluded black jurors from serving in capital cases “with remarkable consistency across time and jurisdictions.” Based on the same statewide evidence, plus the jury strikes in their cases, Weeks concluded that the death sentences imposed on Golphin, Augustine, and Walters also should be overturned. Prosecutors then persuaded the North Carolina Supreme Court to vacate Weeks’s rulings and send the cases back to the trial court for more evidence. “Lo and behold we get back into Superior Court, and at that point, the position shifts, and it’s well wait a minute, the statute’s been repealed, the courthouse door has been shut, and you are out of luck,” explained Gretchen Engel, director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation. The prisoners’ appeal drew support from numerous civil rights and law-reform organizations, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), the North Carolina NAACP, the National Association of Public Defenders, the North Carolina Association of Black Lawyers, the North Carolina Council of Churches, North Carolina Advocates for Justice, the ACLU Capital Punishment Project, and a group of former prosecutors. In a statement, LDF senior deputy director of litigation Jin Hee Lee said: “The continuing stain of racial discrimination not only invalidates the death sentences imposed on these defendants, but it also undermines public confidence in North Carolina’s judicial system as a whole.” Former Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley said, “Whatever one thinks of the death penalty, we should all agree that execution can never be an option when racial stereotypes are used to keep black citizens off capital juries. No civil right is more basic than this.” 

Voters in Durham, North Carolina Expand Reach of National Reform Movement, Elect Anti-Death Penalty Prosecutor

Voters in North Carolina added their voices to an expanding movement for local criminal justice reform, ousting sheriffs who closely cooperated with federal authorities seeking to detain and deport immigrants and nominating reform candidates in local district attorney races. In Durham County, considered the state's most progressive county, voters in the Democratic primary opted for a candidate who advocated more rapid reform and said she would never pursue the death penalty, replacing incumbent Roger Echols with former defense attorney, Satana Deberry (pictured). With no Republican challenger in the Fall, the nomination virtually assures that Deberry will be elected district attorney. Durham County voters also unseated incumbent Sheriff Mike Andrews, who had honored constitutionally problematic immigration detainers, in favor of former Duke University police chief Clarence Birkhead, who vowed "to not cooperate with ICE." In an historic primary election in Mecklenburg County, Democratic voters ensured for the first time ever that African Americans would be elected to the offices of sheriff and district attorney in the county. Thirty-year Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department veteran Garry McFadden said he would end incumbent sheriff Irwin Carmichael's controversial immigrant dentention policies and interim District Attorney Spencer Merriweather called his election "a beginning in the process of building trust in our criminal justice system." Neither of the candidates face opposition in the general election. During the Durham district attorney's campaign, Echols and Deberry both said they would work to reform policies that have contributed to over-incarceration, but Deberry challenged the pace at which Echols pursued reform and called for a "culture change" in the DA's office. The candidates' views on capital punishment typified their different approaches to reform. In responses to a candidate questionnaire from the Durham's People's Alliance Political Action Committee, Echols said he was "not a proponent of the death penalty" and favored its abolition, but "recognized[d] that it is allowable under the law" and should be considered "at most ... [on] rare occasions." By contrast, Deberry's questionnaire response was unequivocal: "I am morally, ethically, theologically, and in all other ways opposed to the death penalty [and] ... as District Attorney, I would not seek the death penalty in any case in Durham County." Deberry wrote that capital punishment "is irrevocably flawed and does not provide justice to victims nor society. I believe it suffers from racial and socioeconomic bias and there is no way to ensure that it is being ethically applied." She called the death penalty "a human rights violation" and said it "should be abolished." Deberry is one of a growing number of prosecutors, such as Denver's Beth McCann and Philadelphia's Larry Krasner, who have announced they will not use the death penalty. In another closely watched local election that is considered a bell-weather for the strength of reform efforts, San Diego district attorney challenger Geneviéve Jones-Wright recently committed to exercise her prosecutorial discretion to decline to seek the death penalty. "Although the death penalty is still legal in California, it is not mandatory that a District Attorney imposes it," she responded to an ACLU-sponsored California District Attorney candidate questionnaire. "The death penalty is discriminatory, costly, and ineffective as a deterrent. I am morally opposed to it," Jones-Wright said. Jones-Wright, whose campaign is supported by the progressive REAL Justice PAC and by philanthropist George Soros' California Justice & Public Safety PAC, is attempting to unseat incumbent interim DA Summer Stephan, whose campaign is backed by a PAC sponsored by the California deputy district attorney’s association. Stephan did not respond to the questionnaire.

North Carolina Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Racial Justice Act Death-Penalty Cases

The North Carolina Supreme Court announced on March 2 that it will hear appeals from three of the four prisoners whose death sentences were reduced to life without parole under the state's Racial Justice Act, then reinstated after the legislature repealed the law. Passed in 2009 and repealed in 2013, the landmark legislation allowed death-row prisoners to challenge their sentences on the basis of statistical evidence of racial discrimination. Marcus Robinson (pictured), Quintel Augustine, Christina Walters, and Tilmon Golphin all received reduced sentences in rulings by Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks. The defendants presented evidence of jury strikes or acceptances of more than 7,400 jurors from 173 capital cases tried over a twenty-year period. The study showed that for the entire period covered, prosecutors across the state consistently struck African-American jurors at approximately double the rate of other jurors, and disproportionately removed African-American jurors irrespective of their employment status, whether or not they expressed reservations on the death penalty, or whether they or a close relative had been accused of a crime. Weeks determined that the study was “valid [and] highly reliable” and showed “with remarkable consistency across time and jurisdictions” that prosecutors had systemically excluded African-Americans from juries in death-penalty cases. In 2015, the state Supreme Court vacated Weeks’ rulings and remanded the case to the Superior Court to permit more evidence to be presented. At that point, prosecutors argued that the prisoners could no longer rely on the Racial Justice Act because it had been repealed, and a new judge, Erwin Spainhour, agreed. The North Carolina Supreme Court will decide whether Spainhour's ruling stands in the cases of Robinson, Augustine, and Walters. It did not yet announce whether it will hear Golphin’s case. Two additional death-row prisoners, Rayford Burke and Andrew Ramseur, will present related issues to the court. Their Racial Justice Act claims were filed, but not heard by a judge, before the law was repealed. James Ferguson, one of the attorneys who worked on the Racial Justice Act cases, said, “All we want is for the courts to look at the facts and make a fair decision. When you really look at the evidence, it’s clear that race is influencing how we use the death penalty in North Carolina. This is a chance for the state’s highest court to declare, definitively, that racial bias in the death penalty is an urgent civil rights issue that cannot be swept under the rug.”

Wake County, North Carolina Jury Rejects Death Penalty in Ninth Consecutive Case

A Wake County, North Carolina jury has rejected the death penalty for 24-year-old Donovan Jevonte Richardson (pictured) and sentenced him to two life sentences, marking the ninth consecutive Wake County capital trial to result in a life verdict. No jury has imposed the death penalty in the county since 2007. “The reality," said Gretchen Engel, Executive Director of the Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation, is that "it just doesn’t make sense to pursue the death penalty in Wake County. Juries have made it crystal clear that they no longer want to impose death sentences, and these costly protracted trials benefit no one.” The jury voted on January 24 to spare Richardson's life, finding that 11 mitigating circumstances—including his age, lack of premeditation, and mental duress at the time of the crime—outweighed the aggravating factors of burglary and robbery during a 2014 home break-in that ended in the murders of Arthur Lee Brown, 74, and David Eugene McKoy, 66. The jury also found as mitigating circumstances that Richardson's father had abandoned him, refusing to acknowledge that Richardson was his son until after a paternity test; that sentencing Richardson to death could harm his two young sons, aged 3 and 7; and that Richardson’s family had offered assurances that Richardson would have a relationship with his sons while he is imprisoned. Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman characterized the case as "everybody's worst nightmare[,] ... two men who worked hard (and) loved their families (but) were murdered in the sanctity of their home at night." She said, "This was a case that we felt strongly (that) under the law (and) under the facts of the case, it was appropriate to go to a jury on that issue." Engel disagreed. “Donovan Richardson wasn’t the most culpable murderer in Wake County, or even in this case. He was just the one who refused to accept the plea bargain," she said. "That’s why he ended up facing the death penalty. It’s a system that makes no sense. It’s entirely arbitrary and goes against our ideas about justice and a death penalty reserved only for a carefully selected few.” The evidence in the case showed that another man Gregory Crawford, committed at least one of the killings and may have shot both men. He pleaded guilty in May 2016 to charges of first-degree murder, robbery with a dangerous weapon, and burglary and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. A third man, Kevin Britt, was charged with two counts of first-degree murder, robbery with a dangerous weapon and burglary, but was permitted to plead guilty to being an accessory to murder after agreeing to testify against Richardson. He is expected to serve less than two years in prison. A 2013 study by DPIC showed that Wake County had the 50th largest county death row in the United States and was among the 2% of U.S. counties accounting for 56% of all prisoners then on death row in the country. In February 2016, after jurors had returned the sixth consecutive life sentence in Wake County, District Attorney Freeman said it might be time to reassess whether to seek the death penalty in future cases. The county nonetheless has sought the death penalty in at least one capital trial in each of the last three years, a time period in which there have been only ten capital trials in the state's 100 counties and only one death sentence.

As North Carolina Juries Reject Death Penalty, Legislators Accused of Playing Politics With Executions

For the third time since 2012, no one in North Carolina was sentenced to death in 2017. All four trials in 2017 in which prosecutors sought a death sentence ended with a jury either acquitting the defendant of capital murder or returning a lesser sentence. Despite the historical decline in death sentencing in North Carolina, two state legislative leaders, in a letter derided by editorial boards as political posturing, used the recent killing of three prison guards to demand that Governor Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein "restart" executions in the state. House Speaker Tim Moore (pictured, left) and Senate President pro-tem Phil Berger (pictured, right), claimed that Cooper’s and Stein’s purported "indifference and failure to fight the moratorium [on executions in North Carolina] endangers the lives of prison employees in close proximity to hardened murderers with nothing left to lose, who see no possibility they will face execution for killing again." Editorial reaction to the legislators' comments was swift and sharp. The Greensboro News and Record called the accusation in the letter "a vulgar insinuation unsupported by facts." The Charlotte Observer editorialized that the legislative leaders were "seeking to politicize the tragedy rather than effectively remedy the conditions that make the state’s prisons so dangerous for correctional officers." Their actions, the paper said, were akin to "creating and tolerating the conditions that allow inmates to kill prison workers, then blaming the officers’ deaths on the governor whose administration is trying to actually address the problem." Raleigh's News and Observer editorial board called Moore and Berger's letter "absurd," "shameless," and a "political gambit" that was "demagogu[ing] the death penalty." It wrote, "[n]either the governor nor the AG can restart the death penalty, which is under legal challenge on a multitude of grounds, as it is in many states. That's why no one has been put to death by the state in more than 10 years. ... [A]s long as legal challenges are pending, the death penalty can't be restarted as if the task were just like turning on a light switch." A Capitol Broadcasting Company editorial called the legislators' charges "[c]ynical and shameful" "pathetic," and "political posturing." The company said, "Regardless of how anybody feels about capital punishment ... , it will do NOTHING to help make our prisons any more secure or help to make it safer for guards and other personnel who have to work inside them." Gretchen M. Engel, executive director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, provided context for North Carolina's use of the death penalty, noting that "[m]ore than three-quarters of death row inmates were sentenced at least 15 years ago, in an era when North Carolina juries sentenced to death dozens of people a year under less-enlightened laws. ... Defendants on trial for their lives did not have basic protections such as qualified attorneys or laws requiring that confessions be recorded." She credits high-profile exonerations, like that of Henry McCollum, for contributing to the reduction in death sentences in the state. “There are some elected officials in North Carolina who still like to talk about the death penalty for political purposes, but that’s about the only way it’s being used anymore,” Engel said. Rob Schofield of NC Policy Watch said, "Berger and Moore would do much more for the safety and security of prison personnel if they would invest adequate resources in our corrections system."

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