North Carolina

North Carolina

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."

Lawyer Says North Carolina Client's Brutally Traumatic Childhood Characteristic of Many on Death Row

The life of Terry Ball (pictured) "is worth remembering," says his appeal lawyer, Elizabeth Hambourger. She says Ball's life, which ended October 18 when he died of natural causes on North Carolina's death row, "hold[s] keys to understanding the origins of crime and our shared humanity with people labeled the worst of the worst." His "story of childhood trauma and brain damage" is characteristic of the backgrounds of many on death row, Hambourger says, but "was barely told at trial." Ball was convicted and sentenced to death for the cocaine-induced murder of his pastor's wife and attempted murder of his pastor in 1993, which occurred during a relapse of Ball's cocaine addition. His road to death row began when he was hit by a car at age 10, suffering injuries that kept him hospitalized for eight weeks. The head trauma changed his personality, but the severity of his brain damage was not detected at the time. He and a girlfriend ran away from home when he was 13, during which time he was abducted by a serial rapist, Jerry Wood, and repeatedly raped, kept high on drugs, and forced to steal, until he was able to escape nearly a month later. Rather than receiving mental-health services as a victim of sexual assault, Ball was adjudicated delinquent for running away and was incarcerated in a juvenile detention center, where a state psychiatrist questioned his sexual identity, writing that his month-long "association" with his rapist "raised the question of possible homosexuality." Wood, who was never prosecuted for raping and abducting Ball, was later convicted of raping two other children and sentenced to 45 years in jail. Ball then turned to drugs as self-medication for his trauma. He later enlisted in, but was swiftly discharged from, the Navy and subsequently committed several violent drug-motivated robberies and was jailed for nearly killing two people. After his release from prison, he checked himself in to three treatment centers over the course of three years, all in an unsuccessful effort to overcome his addiction to crack cocaine. Hambourger says that Ball's story is a reminder that "[t]his is who we sentence to death: the most damaged, the most abused; traumatized children who grow into adults without learning how to cope with their fear and anger." In North Carolina, death sentences have fallen from an average of 28 per year in the five years spanning 1992-1996 to an average of one per year between 2012-2016. Hambourger believes that, had Ball's trial been held today, "this mitigating evidence would have been thoroughly presented and likely would have persuaded a jury to sentence him to life without parole instead of death."

Federal Court Rules to Protect the Interest of Incompetent North Carolina Death-Row Exoneree

A federal judge has voided a contract that had provided Orlando-based attorney Patrick Megaro hundreds of thousands of dollars of compensation at the expense of Henry McCollum (pictured left, with his brother Leon Brown), an intellectually disabled former death-row prisoner who was exonerated in 2014 after DNA testing by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission showed that he had not committed the brutal rape and murder of a young girl for which he had been wrongly convicted and condemned. McCollum and Brown—who both have IQs measured in the 50s and 60s—had been convicted in 1983 based on coerced false confessions that the brothers (aged 19 and 15 at the time) provided to interrogating officers. At the time of his exoneration, McCollum had spent 30 years on death row and was the state's longest serving death-row prisoner. 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 efforts to obtain compensation and to hire Megaro's firm. McCollum was awarded $750,000 in compensation from North Carolina in October 2015, at least half of which appears to have been paid to Megaro. Within seven months, McCollum was out of money and taking out high-interest loans that had been arranged and approved by Megaro. 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 to the brothers. Defense lawyer Ken Rose, who represented McCollum for 20 years and helped win McCollum's release from prison, provided testimony that two mental experts had previously found that McCollum was "not competent to provide a confession" and that McCollum remained "vulnerable to manipulation and control by others." After hearing additional evidence from experts and other witnesses, U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle determined that, as a result of his intellectual disability, McCollum lacked knowledge and understanding of financial issues, "remains easily manipulated," and was "unable to make important decisions about his person and property." As a result, the court voided the contract between McCollum and Megano, including the fee arrangements. Raymond Tarlton, whom Judge Boyle appointed to serve as McCollum's guardian ad litem, said the decision "made clear that the same disabilities that led to Henry McCollum giving a false confession in 1983 made him vulnerable to be manipulated and controlled after release.” The court also has appointed a guardian to protect the interests of Leon Brown. Judge Boyle ordered further briefing pending receipt of the guardian's report to assist in determining the status of the contract between Megaro and Brown.

North Carolina Decline in Death Verdicts Highlights Penalty's Cost, Ineffectiveness

Death sentences are sharply down in North Carolina and the combination of cost concerns and more effective representation have made them progressively rare. In an interview with The Hickory Daily Record, David Learner, District Attorney for the 25th prosecutorial district encompassing Catawba, Caldwell, and Burke counties, who has personally tried two death-eligible cases, says “It’s extraordinarily difficult to get a death verdict. ... [Y]ou come to realize it’s very difficult for a jury seated in that box to say ‘yes, you need to kill that man.'” Murder cases in which the death penalty may be sought are defended by five regional capital defender offices, which have a record of effectively investigating cases and negotiating non-capital outcomes. According to statistics maintained by the North Carolina Office of Indigent Defense Services (NCIDS), from 2007 to 2015, nearly 60% of capital prosecutions ended with non-capital convictions for second-degree murder or less, and only 2.2 percent of all capital cases in the state resulted in death sentences. In Wake County, juries have returned life verdicts in eight consecutive capital sentencing trials. When a case is charged, Assistant Capital Defender Victoria James told the paper, "you know what happened, but you don’t know why it happened.... And that’s where you get into the client’s mental health, provocation, and many times, those are the kind of cases you hope to be able to resolve without going to trial.” With representation by the regional capital defenders, there have been only 5 death sentences in the state over the past five years, down from 140 death sentences imposed 20 years ago in the five years spanning 1992-1996. No one has been executed in the state since 2006 and most of the 262 prisoners who the North Carolina Department of Public Safety (NCDPS) says have been removed from death row have been resentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole after their convictions or death sentences were overturned. Although 98% of North Carolina cases that start out as capital do not end up with a death sentence, pursuing the death penalty has had significant financial consequences. NCIDS reports that, in fiscal years 2007 to 2015, the average costs were 4.4 times higher in a capital case ($93,231 per case) than when prosecutors did not pursue the death penalty ($21,022 per case). A Duke University study in 2009 concluded that repeal of the death penalty would have produced approximately $10.8 million in annual savings from reduced expenditures on murder cases. Between 2008 and 2013, the percentage of cases in which prosecutors have sought the death penalty has fallen from 28.1% to 11%, and budget cuts to the North Carolina Attorney General's office have shifted to local district attorneys the cost of criminal appeals that used to be handled by state prosecutors. “This thing about, ‘we need to execute him,’ the actual mechanics of the court system, it’s not happening,” Learner said. “Realizing the reality of the death penalty in North Carolina through the court system, it’s really about worthless.” Looking to the future, he said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if North Carolina eventually had a moratorium or completely dismantled the death penalty.”

Three Years Later, Report Explores Lessons From Two North Carolina Death-Penalty Exonerations

On the third anniversary of their groundbreaking exoneration, a new report by the Center for Death Penalty Litigation (CDPL) reviews in-depth the long path from wrongful convictions and death sentences to freedom traveled by former North Carolina death-row prisoners Henry McCollum and Leon Brown. By the time DNA evidence exonerated the brothers of the 1983 rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie, McCollum had spent 30 years on death row and Brown was serving a life sentence for Buie's rape, after his murder conviction and death sentence had been overturned. Justice Antonin Scalia had singled out the case as epitomizing why there should be a death penalty. According to the report, if not for a single cigarette butt, “Henry and Leon would likely have remained in prison for the rest of their lives. Henry might have been executed.” Although no physical evidence connected the brothers to the murder, the 19-year-old McCollum had signed a written confession that asserted he and three others had raped Buie and murdered her by stuffing her panties down her throat. His younger brother, Leon Brown, then 15 years old, also confessed to the crime. However, the CDPL report, Saved From Execution: The Unlikely Exoneration of Henry McCollum, notes that the two intellectually disabled teenagers had been "naive, powerless, and intimidated by a cadre of law enforcement officers ... into signing false confessions. Every gory detail in those confessions," the report recounts, "was provided by investigators ..., but law enforcement never followed up on clues that might have led to the real killer. An overzealous prosecutor with a flair for courtroom theatrics hyped the manufactured evidence. And the state illegally withheld facts that might have allowed Henry and Leon’s attorneys to prove their innocence." The CDPL represented McCollum for two decades. Gretchen Engel, the Center's Executive Director, said the case “shows us the power that law enforcement and prosecutors have in our system, and how that power can be abused. It shows us how hard it is to uncover a wrongful conviction. It shows us that even cases we think are airtight can get the facts entirely wrong.” In 2005, testing on the cigarette butt had produced DNA that did not match either McCollum or Brown, but their convictions remained unaffected. Then, in 2009, Brown—having exhausted his appeals in his non-capital case—sought review from the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, one of the few such commissions in existence in the country. In 2014, the Inquiry Commission ordered more advanced DNA testing of the cigarette butt, and the results matched another man who had lived around the corner from the Buies in 1983 and who raped and killed another young woman later that year. In 2015, Gov. Pat McCrory granted McCollum and Brown pardons based on innocence. Since being freed from 30 years of incarceration (including 10 years in solitary confinement and numerous sexual assaults at the hands of other prisoners), Brown has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and repeatedly hospitalized for mental health problems, including hallucinations and depression.

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