Commentary

Another victim of NC’s Kafkaesque criminal justice system is rescued

Yet another innocent man got out of a North Carolina prison this week after serving decades of a sentence he didn’t deserve. How anyone could still believe we should be putting people to death in light of such a development is unimaginable. The following story appeared originally on the blog of the NC Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

Weak evidence sends innocents to prison, or death
By Kristin Collins of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation

Yesterday, Howard Dudley was exonerated after serving 23 years for a crime he never committed — sexually abusing his daughter.

Dudley was convicted and received a life sentence based on a single piece of evidence: the testimony of a 9-year-old girl who was intellectually disabled and had mental illness.

Not only did prosecutors rely on the girl’s false statements to convict Dudley, but they never revealed court records showing that the girl told several outlandish versions of the story and that many people in her life believed she was lying. Dudley’s inexperienced trial lawyer, who spent just 27 hours preparing for his trial, didn’t know to ask for the records.

The girl recanted almost immediately after the 1992 trial. For more than 20 years, Dudley’s daughter has said he never abused her.

It might sound unbelievable that a person could receive such a stiff sentence based on such thin evidence. In fact, people in North Carolina are frequently prosecuted for the death penalty based on evidence just as flimsy.

Nine people have been exonerated from North Carolina’s death row, and the testimony of unreliable witnesses has been a huge factor in many of those cases. Alan Gell was wrongly sentenced to death based on the false testimony of two teenage girls trying to hide their own culpability in the crime. Levon Jones received a death sentence because of the statements of a single woman, who was paid for her testimony, told several inconsistent stories about the crime, and later recanted.

Research shows that the use of unreliable witnesses — such as children, jailhouse snitches, co-defendants, or people who are being compensated — is commonplace in capital prosecutions in North Carolina. Among defendants who have been the targets of capital prosecutions, despite evidence too weak even to prove their guilt, more than half of cases involve the use of unreliable witnesses.

Go to our new online database, On Trial for their Lives, to explore the cases of innocent people who were prosecuted capitally based on the thinnest of evidence. Or read CDPL’s comprehensive report about wrongful capital prosecutions in North Carolina.

Commentary

Scalia’s death: Another step in the demise of the death penalty?

Scalia,_SCOTUS_photo_portrait

The late Antonin Scalia

With executions long on hold here in North Carolina, it’s easy to forget that we still have a long way to go in joining the most of the rest of the civilized world in abandoning the death penalty. What’s more, as this recent post by Kristin Collins on the blog of the NC Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty reminds us, men still reside on death row in our state who were sentenced under the most absurd and outrageous of circumstances. Here’s Collins:

“Almost a year ago, Kenneth Neal was quietly removed from death row after 19 years awaiting his execution.

According to the judge’s order entered that day in March 2015, Neal was resentenced to life in prison without parole because he is intellectually disabled. In the years since Neal’s 1996 conviction, the Supreme Court has ruled that it is unconstitutional to execute people with significant intellectual disabilities.

Kenneth Neal

Kenneth Neal

What went unmentioned is that Neal likely never would have been sentenced to death in the first place had he not been assigned a notorious convicted felon as a defense attorney.

On trial for his life, the courts assigned Neal an attorney who had, just a few years before when he was a district attorney, been caught up in a highly publicized child pornography sting. The attorney had been caught with sex tapes of children as young as 7 and 8, performing incestuous sex acts between siblings and parents — and the jury was well aware of the lawyer’s crimes. Read Neal’s full story here.”

Of course, such facts would have been unlikely to trouble the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who infamously declared that the Constitution did not bar the execution of even an innocent person who had received a “fair” trial.

In the weeks and months to come, it’s clear that the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court created by Scalia’s passing will force the Court closer to the center of the American political debate than, perhaps, ever before. And whatever the outcome of that contest, it’s hard to imagine that the next Justice appointed will be as avid and enthusiastic of a death penalty defender as Scalia.

Let’s fervently hope that’s the case, anyway.

Commentary

North Carolina death penalty continues to fade away

In case you missed it in the holiday hubbub, be sure to check out the fine Progressive Voices essay that death penalty lawyer Ken Rose authored for NC Policy Watch last month: “New data from 2015: Death penalty increasingly a part of NC’s history, not its future.” As Rose pointed out, one of the happiest developments of 2015 is that the death penalty is clearly on the way out:

“People on all sides are realizing that capital punishment is wasteful and ineffective. In the past few months, a former death penalty prosecutor who sent five people to death row and a Republican state legislator have taken public stands against the death penalty.

North Carolina is in step with the nation. We are now among a majority of states that have abandoned the death penalty, either in law or in practice. Across the United States, new death sentences and executions reached historic lows this year. Just six states carried out executions, and many were horribly botched. Even Texas sentenced only two people to death in 2015.”

Rose’s on-the-money observations have been bolstered in recent days as two of the state’s major newspapers have editorialized in favor of abolition.

On January 2, an editorial in the Fayetteville Observer put it this way:

“The current moratorium is the result of problems finding physicians to supervise executions and the reluctance of drug companies to provide the lethal cocktails that are injected. Some state lawmakers have introduced legislation to sidestep those concerns, but they’re having a hard time evading the Constitution’s prohibition of ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’ It’s a legal morass that even death-penalty proponents call a ‘Gordian knot.’ Unraveling it has been an elusive quest and we don’t see any solutions on a near horizon.

Better, we think, to just walk away from it. An execution may be satisfying revenge, but it’s no deterrent. Lifelong incarceration in one of our godforsaken prisons is more effective punishment – and also cheaper and reversible in case of error.

Since we’re on that course anyway, let’s stick to it.”

And this is the conclusion from an editorial in yesterday’s Wilmington Star News:

“In executing our own citizens, we align ourselves with such human rights violators as Iran, Saudi Arabia and China. Russia and most African nations do not have capital punishment.

Polls show that a majority of Americans still support the death penalty, but when offered a choice between death and life without parole, support decreases.

It is time for North Carolina to get out of the business of executing people.”

In short, it looks like the page on this vexing issue may finally be turning and for this we should all be thankful. As the horrific mass executions in Saudi Arabia this week remind us, our state and nation cannot get on the right side of this issue fast enough.

Commentary

N.C. prosecutor who sent five to death row: It’s time to end death penalty

[This post originally appeared on the blog of the NC Center for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.]

N.C. prosecutor who sent five to death row: It’s time to end death penalty

By Kristin Collins

Twenty five years ago, as an assistant district attorney in Forsyth County, Vince Rabil helped put Blanche Taylor Moore on death row. Today, Rabil says it is time to end the death penalty and calls Moore — a frail 82-year-old still sitting on death row — “a living monument to the failure of a vanishing legal remedy.”

In an op-ed published Sunday, Rabil repudiates a punishment that he spent nearly two decades of his career fighting to uphold. In the 1990s, he prosecuted a dozen people for the death penalty and put at least five on death row. Four remain there today.

Rabil believed so strongly in the death penalty that, in 1997, he became the first prosecutor in the country to seek death for a drunk driver. “This will seriously make everyone stop after the first drink or the second one,” he said at the time.

Now, Rabil says the death penalty is a broken system that costs taxpayers dearly, threatens innocent defendants, and does little to comfort the grieving families of victims. He says life with no possibility of parole is a more appropriate replacement.

Rabil’s transformation reveals how much our state has evolved since the 1990s, when a blind faith in the capital punishment system allowed us to sentence dozens of people a year to die. This year, N.C. juries didn’t hand down a single death sentence, executions remained on hold for a ninth year, and public opposition to the death penalty reached its highest point since the 1970s. In North Carolina, even a Republican legislator came out against capital punishment.

At the same time, Rabil’s courageous stance against the death penalty marks a turning point in North Carolina. While many prosecutors, current and former, no doubt have serious concerns about the death penalty, Rabil is the first in our state to take such a public stand.

We applaud Rabil for speaking the truth that so many others are afraid to admit.

Commentary

Editorial: “Death penalty and the pursuit of it can border on being crimes in themselves”

In case you missed it, the lead editorial in this morning’s edition of Raleigh’s News & Observer does a fine job of summarizing the new and disturbing report from the good people at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation: “On Trial for Their Lives: The Hidden Costs of Wrongful Capital prosecutions in North Carolina.”

As the editorial notes:

“District attorneys who choose to bring capital charges often do so as an expression of the public’s outrage over a heinous crime. But a new report suggests that putting a defendant on trial for his life also can involve another sort of outrage – the pursuit of flimsy cases at high cost to taxpayers and great damage to the accused.

The report from the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in North Carolina looked at problems with death penalty cases from an unusual perspective. Instead of focusing on defendants who were wrongly convicted, the center studied 56 North Carolina capital cases brought between 1989 and 2015 that ended with an acquittal or dismissal of all charges

The finding of 56 cases is a remarkably high number over the past quarter-century given that the state’s death row population is 148. Presumably, prosecutors would not pursue costly, extended death penalty cases unless there was a high probability of a conviction. But the report found shoddy cases derailed by serious errors or misconduct, including witness coercion, evidence not properly disclosed and bungled investigations.”

The editorial concludes this way:

“In North Carolina, there have been no executions since 2006 because of concerns about the drugs used and the refusal of doctors to participate in a process that by law requires a doctor’s presence. Some in the North Carolina General Assembly are trying to streamline the path to execution by proposing a change that would allow medical personnel other than doctors to fulfill the required medical role.

This report adds another chapter to the evidence that the death penalty and the pursuit of it can border on being crimes in themselves. The record demands that the wrongs wrought by this pursuit of vengeance be ended by the pursuit of justice.”

NC Policy Watch will host a Crucial Conversation luncheon today at noon with the authors of the report. We’ll post the video of the event in the very near future.