North Carolina

North Carolina

Two Cases of Probable Innocence Illustrate Need for Better System of Review

Attorneys for a murder defendant who may be innocent have called for reforms in the system of federal review, and particularly to the "accumulated barriers to habeas corpus review of claims of factual innocence."  Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project, along with attorneys for Dr. Jeffrey R. MacDonald in North Carolina, pointed to the mounting evidence of MacDonald's possible innocence that was dismissed by the federal courts until DNA evidence finally became available:  "MacDonald's various legal teams filed successive habeas petitions over the decades. All of these petitions were denied by the federal district court in North Carolina and by the 4th Circuit, in large measure because each new discovery was viewed, and analyzed, in isolation.... When the DNA test results were finally available, the 4th Circuit, in an abrupt turnaround, derided the piecemeal approach previously taken to one evidentiary discovery after another and instructed the district court this time to review 'the evidence as a whole' and apply 'a fresh analysis.'"

NEW VOICES: Law Enforcement Officials Say Death Penalty Does Not Make Them Safer

A recent article by Terrence P. Dwyer (pictured), retired New York State Police Investigator, and George F. Kain, a police commissioner in Ridgefield, Connecticut, dismissed the notion that the death penalty is needed to protect law enforcement officers. Dwyer and Kain wrote that a majority of police chiefs believe that the death penalty does not deter violent crime and rank the death penalty last in a list of effective tools for fighting crime. "In states like New York, which abolished its death penalty in 2004, or North Carolina, where there has been a de facto moratorium since 2006, the numbers indicate no statistical increase in police officer homicides after the death penalty was repealed or rendered moot through moratorium," the authors wrote.  They also encouraged lawmakers to weigh the substantial costs of the death penalty in their decision-making. They stated, "The Connecticut death penalty costs $4 million annually, according to a 2009 estimate by the General Assembly's non-partisan Office of Fiscal Analysis. While capital cases in Connecticut account for just .06 % of cases in the Public Defender's office, the cost to defend these cases was nearly $3.5 million, over 7 % of the office's entire budget."

STUDIES: New Report Cites Multiple Problems with North Carolina's Death Penalty

According to a comprehensive review of studies on the death penalty by Matthew Robinson, Professor of Government and Justice Studies at Appalachian State University, the death penalty in North Carolina is expensive, racially biased and ineffective.  Prof. Robinson analyzed data from more than 20 death penalty studies and found them to be remarkably consistent in their conclusions.  He said, "In the past six years, three states have abolished the death penalty: Illinois, New Mexico and New Jersey.  They did it for the same reason. They found racial bias, they found it to be costly, they found it to be ineffective and a threat to innocent people."  According to Robinson's review, use of the death penalty in North Carolina has been in decline since 2000.  The state has not had an execution since 2006.  He found no evidence that the death penalty deters crime, noting that the state's murder rate has declined since executions stopped in 2006.  He also found evidence of racial bias in the state's death penalty system.  Nearly 80% of death sentences imposed in North Carolina have been in cases where the victim was white, far higher than the percentage of whites who are generally victims of murder.

STUDIES: North Carolina's Death Penalty is Error-Prone and Rarely Applied

A new study from North Carolina shows that the state’s death penalty is error-prone and rarely implemented. A study of the death penalty from 1977 to 2009 found that two out of three death sentences were overturned on appeal, an error rate of 67%. The study also found that only 20% of death sentences resulted in an execution.  The review of the state's death penalty was made by Matthew Robinson, a professor of Government & Justice Studies at Appalachian State University. He made a series of  conclusions based on his research:

LAW REVIEW: North Carolina Lacks Constitutionally-Sufficient Proportionality Review

A law review article by Brooks Emanuel (pictured), a Law Fellow at the Equal Justice Initiative, argues that North Carolina's capital punishment statute violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution because it lacks a meaningful appellate mechanism to prevent the arbitrary and discriminatory application of the death penalty. Citing extensive historical evidence, Emanuel argues that "racial discrimination in North Carolina death sentences was pervasive" in the years leading up to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1972 decision in Furman v. Georgia, which declared existing death penalty statutes unconstitutional. After Furman, North Carolina adopted comparative proportionality review as its primary appellate protection against systemic arbitrariness and discrimination. However, Emanuel says, racially disproportionate capital sentencing continues to be endemic in the state. Examining the North Carolina Supreme Court's proportionality cases, Emanuel argues that the court has failed to provide meaningful proportionality review: "First, the court often does not appear to fulfill its mandate to consider 'similar cases,' instead relying too heavily on the very small group of cases in which death was previously found disproportionate. Second, the review’s lack of transparency is itself unconstitutional in its violation of defendants’ rights to due process." Emanuel argues that evidence from recent Racial Justice Act cases and from its fundamentally flawed proportionality review show that North Carolina has failed to prevent discriminatory sentencing and that systemic arbitrariness and racial disparity persist. Although the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Pulley v. Harris that a state is not constitutionally compelled to provide comparative proportionality review so long as some mechanism exists for meaningful appellate review, Emanuel notes that North Carolina has selected proportionality review to perform that function and it has failed to do so. For those reasons, he concludes, North Carolina's death penalty is unconstitutional.

FORMER DEATH ROW INMATES FREED IN NORTH CAROLINA

On September 2, 2014, Leon Brown (left) and Henry McCollum (right) were exonerated and released from prison in North Carolina.

Judge Dismisses Capital Murder Charges After Finding State Report "Intentionally Misleading"

On March 10, a North Carolina superior court judge released his opinion throwing out murder charges against Derrick Michael Allen, who was accused in the 1998 death and sexual assault of a 2-year-old girl. Judge Orlando Hudson dismissed the case after finding that a State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) report was prepared in an "inaccurate, incomplete and intentionally misleading manner.” Judge Hudson also found that an SBI agent (now suspended) and a former assistant district attorney working on the case “decided to stop further testing of items for DNA testing because they believed further testing of physical evidence of the case would not prove inculpatory to the defendant Derrick Allen and could possibly inculpate others." He wrote that Allen was coerced into entering an Alford plea (a plea in which the defendant accepts that the weight of the evidence points to his guilt but without admitting actual guilt) after being threatened with the death penalty. An autopsy showed that the girl died of shaken baby syndrome. Allen spent more than 10 years in prison.  Allen’s case was among 200 cases that an outside audit discovered were mishandled by the SBI. The audit revealed that agents failed to report correct evidence in a number of cases. Because evidence has been destroyed or is missing since Allen’s case started, Judge Hudson noted, “It is no longer possible for Mr. Allen to ever receive a fair trial.”

MENTAL ILLNESS: Death Sentences Vacated for Two with Severe Mental Illness

One death row inmate from Oregon and another from North Carolina recently had their death sentences removed because of concerns about their mental competency. In Oregon, Robert James Acremant’s sentence was reduced to life without the possibility of parole. Since 2003, prison psychiatrists have diagnosed him as mentally ill, and Acremant said he hears voices and has a transmitter in his head that allows others to control him.  He still has a death sentence from a case in California.  Isaac Stroud in North Carolina was removed from death row after a judge ruled his mental condition kept him from assisting with his own defense. With consent from the victim's family, District Attorney Tracey Cline agreed to a life sentence for a 1995 murder conviction and an additional 30-year sentence for kidnapping. Cline said, "It was apparent that he did suffer from a mental health condition. The [victim’s] family, after so much time, basically just wanted to be sure that Mr. Stroud was not released from prison during his lifetime.” Stroud's attorney, Marilyn Ozer, said, "Everyone looks at the system differently than they did 20 years ago, so it makes sense to go back and look at these cases."  Stroud was not eligible for a sentence of life without parole at the time of his conviction.

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