For Immediate Release:
Thursday, August 23, 2001 Contact: Gerda Stein (919) 956-9545
Center for Death Penalty Litigation
Brenda Bowser (202) 293-6970
Death Penalty Information Center


Case is Similar to Texas “Sleeping Lawyer” But in North Carolina No Relief Granted

Washington, DC - Ronald Frye is scheduled to be executed in North Carolina on Friday, August 31, despite the fact that his lawyer, Thomas Portwood, drank to excess every day during the trial and failed to present crucial evidence which could have saved his client’s life.

A week after a death row inmate in Texas was granted a new trial because his lawyer slept during parts of his trial, Frye’s appeal has been rejected by the courts. In a recent article, Gene R. Nicol, Dean of the University of North Carolina Law School, described the attorney’s irresponsible regimen during the trial:

Every night after the trial recessed, instead of preparing for the next day, the lawyer went home and drank a bottle of rum. According to his own testimony, Frye’s counsel consumed at least 12 shots of 80-proof rum every evening, beginning around 5 and continuing until he fell asleep or passed out. He drank a good deal more on the weekends. And these admissions likely understate the case. When the lawyer was involved in a car wreck during the same time period, his blood-alcohol level was a near-lethal 0.436 percent — even though it was 11 in the morning and he hadn’t had anything to drink in hours.

Marilyn Ozer, Frye’s new attorney called for a higher level of scrutiny: “Surely, the citizens of North Carolina do not wish to declare to the world that the best our state can do is to appoint a severely addicted attorney to represent a man on trial for his life and then turn a blind eye when the enormous deficiencies of this attorney’s representation are revealed to the courts and to the public.”

While Frye is appealing his case to the United States Supreme Court, his lawyers are also asking for clemency from Governor Mike Easley.

Since the death penalty was reinstated in North Carolina, Catawba County has had only three trials resulting in death verdicts (including Frye’s). Thomas Portwood represented clients in each of these trials. In another capital trial that took place shortly after Frye’s, Portwood was removed from the case and sent to rehab. At this point, in Portwood’s own words: “All I was doing was drinking, then sleeping, then getting up to drink again.”

Probably because of his attorney’s drinking problem, Frye’s abuse was never presented to the jury. During Frye’s sentencing trial, Portwood offered little evidence of Frye’s childhood neglect and abuse.

Frye and his brother were given up by their mother to a couple of strangers she met in a restaurant. The new “father,” an alcoholic who would later be convicted of criminal child abuse, repeatedly beat Frye with a bullwhip and sometimes ordered Frye to whip his brother. The scars on Frye were so striking that photographs of the abuse were used at police training sessions. He was eventually placed back in the care of his biological father, who was also abusive. “Frye had been raised by a series of abusive alcoholics, and ironically ended up being represented by a man equally controlled by alcohol,” said Ozer.

The North Carolina Academy of Trial Lawyers is planning a press conference on Monday, August 27, to condemn the representation Frye received.

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