North Carolina

North Carolina

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.

Jury in Wake County, North Carolina Returns 8th Consecutive Life Verdict in a Capital Trial

A Wake County, North Carolina jury voted to spare Nathan Holden's life on March 3, marking the eighth consecutive capital sentencing trial in the county in which juries had opted to sentence a defendant to life without parole instead of the death penalty. No jury in Wake County has imposed a death sentence since 2007. Prosecutors had sought the death penalty against Holden for murdering his ex-wife's parents and attempting to kill her. The jury convicted Holden of two counts of first-degree murder but, after being presented evidence of 39 mitigating circumstances—including that he suffered from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder as a result of chronic childhood abuse—jurors chose to sentence him to life. Although the ten Wake County prisoners on North Carolina's death row placed the county among the 2% of counties that accounted for 56% of all prisoners on U.S. death rows as of 2013, Wake District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said after jurors returned the sixth consecutive life sentence in February 2016 that it might be time to rethink whether to pursue the death penalty in future cases. Wake County's experience has been typical of North Carolina, and the nation as a whole. The state has averaged fewer than two death sentences per year since 2011, with no new death sentences in 2012 and 2015. In 2016, only one of the five capital trials in the state resulted in a death sentence. By contrast, the state sent between 20 to 30 people per year to death row in the 1990s. The United States has seen a similar drop in death sentences, imposing a total of only 30 new death sentences last year, down from a peak of 315 in 1996 (see graph, click to enlarge). North Carolina's last execution was in 2006.

At Least Seven States Introduce Legislation Banning Death Penalty for People with Severe Mental Illness

Bills to exempt individuals with severe mental illness from facing the death penalty are expected in at least seven states in 2017. Legislators in Idaho, Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Virginia have either introduced such legislation or announced that they plan to. Six of the seven states have sponsorship from Republican legislators, indicating bipartisan support for the measures. The author of Indiana's bill, Sen. James Merritt (pictured, R-Indianapolis), says he supports the death penalty but draws a “bright line of distinction” around executing people with severe mental illness. There are some variations in the bills, but each creates a process in which a determination is made—usually by a judge—whether the defendant qualifies for the exemption. Some bills define serious mental illness by particular diagnoses, others by behavioral impairments in functioning. Qualifying diagnoses under the exemption typically included Schizophrenia and Schizoaffective Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Traumatic Brain Injury. Defendants found to be suffering from severe mental illness would not be exempted from criminal responsibility, but would be subject to a maximum sentence of life without parole. Numerous mental health organizations have called for an exemption to the death penalty for individuals with severe mental illness. The measures have the support of the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Mental Health America (MHA), and state-level coalitions of mental health advocates. In December 2016, the American Bar Association held a national summit and issued a white paper in support of a severe mental illness exemption. Several religious leaders also have spoken out in favor of the exemption. Richard Cizik, President of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, wrote an op-ed for The Virginian-Pilot in late January saying, "Their conditions affect many aspects of the legal process, impacting their appearance in court, the jury’s perception of ticks or socially inappropriate interactions, the defendant’s presentation of facts, and even their own admission of guilt. Indeed, studies have shown that defendants with severe mental illness are more likely to give a false confession. ...As a faith leader, I am compelled to advocate for compassionate and fair laws such as this." Glenn Tebbe, executive director of the Indiana Catholic Conference, called the bill "prudent and just."

Two Studies Find Persistent Discrimination in Jury Selection in North and South Carolina

Two recent studies examining the effects of Batson v. Kentucky found that, despite the Supreme Court's ban on racial discrimination in jury selection, Black jurors continue to be disproportionately removed from jury pools in North and South Carolina. Batson, the case that banned the practice of striking jurors on the basis of race, has garnered recent attention because of a recent Supreme Court case, Foster v. Chatman. In Foster, the trial court denied a Black defendant's challenges to the prosecutor's removal of all Black jurors, saying the prosecution had offered race-neutral reasons for those strikes. Years later, through an open records request, Foster's lawyers obtained the prosecution's jury selection notes, which highlighted the names and race of all the prospective Black jurors, put all of the Black jurors on a list of jurors to "definitely strike," and the Black jurors against one another in case "it comes down to having to pick one of the black jurors." A study by Daniel R. Pollitt and Brittany P. Warren in the North Carolina Law Review found that discriminatory practices similar to those in Foster were widespread in North Carolina capital cases, but repeatedly ignored by the state's courts: "In the 114 cases decided on the merits by North Carolina appellate courts, the courts have never found a substantive Batson violation where a prosecutor has articulated a reason for the peremptory challenge of a minority juror." The authors found that the North Carolina Supreme Court had been called upon to decide jury discrimination issues in 74 cases since Batson was decided in 1986, and that "during that time, that court has never once found a substantive Batson violation." By contrast, they said, every other state appellate court located in the Fourth Circuit had found at least one substantive Batson violation during that period. The authors argue, "Thirty years after Batson, North Carolina defendants challenging racially discriminatory peremptory strikes still face a crippling burden of proof and prosecutors’ peremptory challenges are still effectively immune from constitutional scrutiny." A study of South Carolina capital juries by Assistant Professor Ann M. Eisenberg of the University of South Carolina School of Law found that prosecutors exercised peremptory strikes against 35% of otherwise eligible Black prospective jurors, nearly triple the rate (12%) at which they struck otherwise eligible White prospective jurors. Eisenberg also examined the death-qualification process, which excludes jurors who are opposed to capital punishment from serving on death penalty juries. Eisenberg says death-qualification removes "approximately one-third of the population, most of whom are women and African-Americans" from serving on death penalty juries and "functioned as a substantial impediment to jury service by African-Americans in this study." Eisenberg concluded that "removal of jurors for their opposition to the death penalty stands in tension with a defendant’s Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment Rights and Supreme Court jurisprudence." The combined effects of peremptory strikes and the death-qualification process was even starker. Prior to these strikes, Blacks comprised 21.5% of the prospective jury pool. However, 47% of all Black jurors were removed by one or the other of these strikes, as compared with only 16% of White jurors, reducing the percentage of African Americans in the jury pool to only 14.7%.

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."

Pages