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. Read more

Commentary

Editorial: Debtors’ prison still a reality in 21st Century North Carolina

An editorial in this morning’s Charlotte Observer highlights and decries an all-too-common reality that persists in 21st Century North Carolina: debtors’ prison. As “Stop jailing people for being poor” explains, our state is still imprisoning huge numbers of people simply because they can’t afford to pay court fines and fees — fines and fees, it should be noted, that our tax-averse General Assembly keeps jacking up at a rapid rate. This is from the editorial:

“The poorest among us should not be responsible for funding the criminal justice system, nor should they be punished simply for being poor. That message is beginning to resonate in both Carolinas but needs to become a principle upon which more court officials and legislators abide.

In Mecklenburg County, judges are working with Harvard Law School’s Criminal Justice Debt Initiative to ensure that people who don’t belong in jail are no longer sent and stuck there because they are unable to pay fines on charges that aren’t supposed to include jail time. As The Observer’s Michael Gordon reported this weekend, Mecklenburg judges will start weighing defendants’ incomes and expenses, their housing status, and whether they can afford to pay for a lawyer. Given that more than half of defendants in North Carolina in non-traffic criminal cases were declared indigent last year – and that taxpayers pay the hefty bill to jail people who don’t belong there – the move is a wise one.

It goes against recent actions taken by the North Carolina General Assembly, which has made it harder for judges to use their discretion to find non-jail options for poor defendants. Legislators have increased court fees by 400 percent over the past two decades, and too many state agencies have come to rely upon the $700 million they generate for the general fund. That’s why it’s going to be difficult to reverse course. But other N.C. counties should follow Mecklenburg’s lead, even if it means more judges get placed on what court insiders call the ‘List of Shame’ by refusing to sit idly while the state encourages a debtors’ prison. Judges should be proud to be named to the legislatively mandated list, ensuring fair treatment of the most vulnerable. They should not feel shame for doing the right thing….

We should have never built a justice system that routinely treated the downtrodden unfairly so towns and cities could fund their growing budgets. Municipalities, courts and other government agencies must find constitutionally sound revenue sources and stop preying on the poor.”

Commentary, News

Watchdog group calls for investigation of Lt. Gov. Dan Forest

In case you missed it, the nonpartisan good government advocates who helped bring down former Democratic House Speaker Jim Black are demanding and investigation into recent revelations about Lt. Gov. Dan Forest. This is from a release distributed by Democracy North Carolina:

Call for Investigation of Possible Illegal Donation

Democracy North Carolina is following up a story published by WRAL on Sunday with a call for the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement to investigate an apparent illegal donation to Lt. Gov. Dan Forest.

In releasing the letter below (sent Monday to the Board), executive director Bob Hall said, “It’s important for the State Board to investigate and take firm action to prevent this kind of shadowy campaign operation from embedding itself inside the office of a public official.”

*                      *                      *

November 13, 2017

Kim Westbrook Strach
State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement
430 N. Salisbury St., 3rd Floor, Dobbs Building
Raleigh, NC 27603

Dear Ms. Strach,

I am requesting an investigation by your agency of a possible illegal donation received by Lieutenant Governor Daniel Forest as described in a November 12th article by WRAL reporter Travis Fain entitled “Nonprofit provides TV studio for Lt. Gov. Forest’s office,” at this link:

http://www.wral.com/nonprofit-provides-tv-studio-for-lt-gov-forest-s-office/17071692/

The article describes how a nonprofit corporation, “run and at least partly funded” by Forest’s major campaign contributor, is providing TV equipment valued at over $60,000 for a new TV studio in Forest’s government office, which allows Forest to create messages on an array of topics and broadcast them to voters. Importantly, the corporation’s TV equipment is not a permanent gift to the State of North Carolina for use by a variety of public officials. Rather, it is provided temporarily as a loan, for the benefit of only Forest and subject to removal when he leaves the office.

David Longo, the major contributor behind this corporate donation, has given at least $125,000 to committees aiding Forest’s election, and he and his family have contributed at least $40,000 directly to Forest’s campaigns, according to the article.

This loan of sophisticated TV equipment appears to be a political donation. A reasonable person would recognize that it is meant to influence and materially assist Forest’s political career and campaign. It is not dissimilar to a major contributor providing a jet plane, available on loan, to fly the politician around the state to promote his or her agenda and visibility. Such a contribution is subject to campaign contribution rules in North Carolina.

It’s one thing for an independent 501-c-4 operation to promote the agenda, views and political future of a politician; it’s quite another to allow the c-4 to be set up and operate within the politician’s government office, use government resources and coordinate its operation with government staff, all for the advancement of the politician, not the general public.

It appears that the donation of TV equipment is a campaign contribution that violates North Carolina’s disclosure laws and ban against corporate contributions. Alternatively, the donation may fit the description of “anything of value” that Forest is prohibited from receiving under NC General Statute 138A-32(a) because of its influence on how he discharges his duties as a public official.

I look forward to your investigation of these matters.

Sincerely,

Bob Hall
Executive Director

Commentary, News

Even Burr and Tillis telling Roy Moore it’s time to go

The Alabama special Senate election is four weeks from today and the walls appear to be closing in on Roy Moore. Today, even North Carolina’s usually-late-to-the-party senators weighed in to call for his withdrawal in light of revelations about alleged sexual misconduct.

This is from a story on WFAE.org in Charlotte:

“North Carolina’s two U.S. Senators have joined a growing group of Republican colleagues in Congress calling on Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore to withdraw from the race.

Their statements came after a fifth woman accused Moore of sexual misconduct when she was a 16-year-old waitress in the 1970s.  In a Twitter post, Thom Tillis called the allegations against Moore ‘disturbing,’ and said he should immediately drop out of the race.

The Raleigh News & Observer reported that Richard Burr’s office issued a statement saying he thinks Moore should ‘do the right thing and withdraw.'”

Good for Burr and Tillis for speaking up, though one wishes that: a) they’d done so earlier given Moore’s reprehensible record in countless other areas in his public life, and b) they’d muster the courage to take a similar stand vis a vis another certain serial prevaricator and part-time sexual predator who occupies an even higher office in our nation’s capital.

Commentary

The best editorial of the weekend demands action from Burr, Tillis

Se. Richard Burr

Sen. Thom Tillis

One can forgive the people of the Cape Fear region these days if they’re a little sensitive about chemical pollutants in the environment and the failure of public officials to protect human wellbeing as the ongoing GenX mess continues to play out. So, it is from a place of experience that editors of the Wilmington Star News authored yesterday’s lead editorial blasting Donald Trump’s selection of chemical industry apologist Michael Dourson to head the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution.

After listing several of Trump’s bizarre picks to head various agencies, the editorial (“EPA nominee should scare us all”) puts it this way:

“The appointment of Michael Dourson to head the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution, however, takes the cake. Talk about the fox guarding the hen house.

Unlike [failed Ag Department Science Adviser nominee Sam] Clovis, Dourson is an actual scientist. He has, however, spent the past 20 years or so working for clients such as DuPont (former owner of Chemours), Monsanto and Dow AgroSciences, defending the safety of pesticides and other chemicals. Generally, he argued that these chemicals were far less risky than EPA scientists or independent researchers believed.

Through a fluke in ethics rules, there is nothing that bars Dourson from ruling on these companies’ chemicals that he was being paid to defend a year or two ago. That’s not exactly draining the swamp.

Dourson helped DuPont defend its use of the chemical PFOA — better known as C8, the precursor to GenX — after states sued over water contamination. Starting to sound familiar?

DuPont and Chemours agreed to pay $671 million to settle thousands of C8 lawsuits. Dourson, however, insisted that the levels were safe, even though a panel of scientists convened by DuPont found a probable link with six illnesses: kidney and testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, pregnancy-induced hypertension and high cholesterol.

Nobody expected Mr. Trump to name tree-huggers or Greenpeace activists to environmental posts. We would, though, expect at least a principled conservative with an independent mind, not someone who’s spent much of his career essentially as a paid lobbyist for the chemical industry.”

The editorial goes on to note the extreme importance of the GenX water pollution crisis to residents of southeastern North Carolina. It concludes with a demand (it even includes their phone numbers) of Senators Burr and Tillis:

“When Dourson’s nomination comes before the full Senate (and it shortly will), Burr and Tillis should demand that the president name someone else. If you are ever going to contact your U.S. senator’s office about a national issue, this is it.

This isn’t about political ideology or whether you support or don’t support President Trump. This is about nothing less than the very basic safety of our drinking water.”