Commentary

A life condemned: Remembering my client who died on death row

[Cross-posted from the blog of the NC Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.]

By Elizabeth Hambourger

I’m a capital defense lawyer. At any given time, I represent a dozen or more men and women who are either on death row or charged with first-degree murder. Death is an inescapable part of my work, but that’s been true this year more than most. In January, my client Ricky “Coolie” Gray was executed in Virginia. And although North Carolina has not executed anyone in over a decade, those confined to our death row are beginning to die of old age and sickness. In October, my client Terry Ball died of natural causes at Central Prison. Much has been written about Coolie’s life. Terry, by contrast, slipped away with barely a mention after living on death row for almost 25 years. I believe his life is worth remembering, and that his story, like all my clients’ stories, hold keys to understanding the origins of crime and our shared humanity with people labeled the worst of the worst.

Terry grew up in Mansfield, Ohio. His parents lost their first-born child in a farming accident, but they did their loving best for Terry and his sister. Terry’s problems seem to have begun at age 10, when he was hit by a car and spent eight weeks in the hospital. The head trauma he suffered permanently changed him. His grades fell and he became defiant with his parents. However, the severity of his brain injury was not fully diagnosed at the time.

Perhaps it was because of this brain damage that Terry made the fateful decision to run away from home at 13. He was in love with a girl named Kim and their parents didn’t approve of the relationship, so Terry and Kim ran off together to Cincinnati. A man named Jerry Wood approached the pair at a bus station and offered them a place to stay. Terry and Kim gratefully accepted, having no idea that Wood was not only a career criminal but a serial rapist of runaway and neglected boys. Wood was at that very moment wanted by police for felony assault.

Elizabeth Hambourger

Wood quickly put Kim on a bus back home but forced Terry to remain with him for the next month, raping him repeatedly, keeping him high on drugs, and forcing him to steal. Eventually Terry managed to escape. But when he returned home, he was treated not as a victim but a delinquent and placed in a juvenile detention center as punishment for running away.

Terry’s parents and the mental health workers at the detention center seemed unable to confront the reality that Terry had been raped. Because of the stigma and misinformation surrounding homosexuality in the 1970s, they accused him of being gay instead of treating him as a victim of sexual assault. One psychiatrist wrote: “When he was away from home, he travelled all over the country with a 32-year-old male. This association raised the question of possible homosexuality; Terry denies this… The parents… at the present time appear to be concerned in case the label of homosexual will be applied to Terry.” Terry never received any treatment or even recognition of the trauma he’d been through, and Jerry Wood was never prosecuted for it. Today, Wood is serving a 45-year sentence in Pennsylvania for the rapes of two other children.

Without treatment, Terry turned to drug use, a trick he’d learned from Jerry Wood to dull his pain, shame, and rage. He enlisted, but was discharged from the Navy because of addiction and then committed several violent drug-motivated robberies. He served prison terms for beating a woman with a hammer and slitting a young man’s throat. By some stroke of luck, both victims survived.

In 1990, released from prison and living in Washington, N.C., Terry discovered crack cocaine. He checked himself into three treatment centers in three years, desperate to kick his addiction.  During one of those stints, he met his wife Sherry. He joined Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous and held down a maintenance job. He also began attending a local church pastored by Tony Krantz.

Krantz lived in Washington with his wife, Laura, and two school-aged children. Terry confided in Tony and Laura about his addiction, and they tried to help. Tony took him fishing. But one night in June 1993, Terry relapsed. He binged on crack and pills until he ran out. Then, desperate for money to buy more, he went to the Krantz home.

It was 4:30 a.m. when Tony Krantz found Terry at his front door. Terry said he wanted to talk and Tony poured him a Dr. Pepper at the kitchen table. Suddenly, Terry attacked him with a knife. Seriously injured, Tony managed to call 911 before running for help. In the meantime, Tony’s wife Laura had come downstairs. Terry stabbed her 17 times before running out of the house. Laura bled to death with her children beside her.

Terry was sentenced to death just seven months later. This was the mid-90s, when North Carolina juries were handing out dozens of death sentences a year. Like many people tried during those years, Terry’s story of childhood trauma and brain damage was barely told at trial. If his trial were 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.

Terry lived on death row for 24 years. His case churned ever-so-slowly through the appeals process, hitting one delay after another. His mother and sister died and Terry’s health deteriorated. For the last few years he was confined to a wheelchair in constant pain. He was only 59 when he died. It was a hard life, but I am grateful he passed away in his cell, near the other condemned men who had become his family, rather than spending his final days in the miserable solitary confinement of the Central Prison hospital.

Terry Ball caused a lot of pain in his life, and he also experienced more than his share. The same is certainly true of Coolie and most of the thousands of men and women still on our nation’s death rows. This 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. The death penalty says these lives have no value. I disagree.

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