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

Is the end near for the death penalty?

We may not be quite there yet, but this new post by Kristin Collins of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation (which originally appeared on the blog of the Center for Alternatives to the Death Penalty) does a great job of explaining how thoroughly dysfunctional the nation’s various death machinery systems have become.

090309-1854-memotodeath1.jpgU.S. executions grind to a halt as lethal injection stumbles
By Kristin Collins

The death penalty has been on the decline in the U.S. for more than a decade, but right now, capital punishment is imploding rather spectacularly in almost every state in the nation.

States are scrambling for lethal drugs, importing them from illegal foreign sources, and passing laws to keep their sources secret. Several executions have been called off with minutes or hours to spare because of faulty drugs. The handful of states still attempting to execute inmates, often with untested drug combinations, have created a spectacle of torturous botched executions.

Here is just a sampling of recent headlines:

Oklahoma, just months after the bloody and horrifying 45-minute execution of Clayton Lockett, accidentally executed a prisoner using the wrong drug. The error was discovered minutes before a second man was set to be executed with the same unapproved drug combination. Executions are now on hold indefinitely.

Arizona and Texas attempted to illegally import lethal drugs from India, only to have federal agents seize the drugs at the airport.

Ohio — after passing laws to keep the sources of its drugs secret, and failed attempts to obtain drugs from unregulated compounding pharmacies and illegal foreign sources — gave up and put executions on hold until 2017, saying it simply could not find the drugs it needed. Executions are now stalled in several states because of drug shortages.

Utah has again legalized the firing squad, to be used if the state is unable to find drugs for lethal injection.

Executions are now on hold in 16 states, including North Carolina, due to problems with lethal injection. They outnumber the small handful of states that still have a functioning death penalty. Read more

Commentary, News

More groups call for McCrory to veto death penalty secrecy bill

A day after conservatives delivered a letter calling on Gov. McCrory to veto legislation that would jump start executions in North Carolina and shroud them in secrecy, a coalition of human rights groups has spoken up as well.

RALEIGH – A coalition of human rights groups is urging Gov. Pat McCrory to veto a bill that would hide the source of lethal injection drugs used to execute prisoners on death row and remove the requirement that a qualified physician be present at all executions.

The groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, the Carolina Justice Policy Center, the N.C. Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, and the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, argue that HB 774 is a dangerous proposal that would make executions more secretive, increase the risk of botched executions, and ensure continued legal challenges to the death penalty in North Carolina.

“Less than a year after other states have botched executions as a result of using experimental drugs obtained in secret, it would be foolhardy for North Carolina to go down the same road,” said Sarah Preston, acting executive director of the ACLU of North Carolina. “This bill would increase the likelihood of a botched execution in North Carolina, hide basic information about executions from public access, and needlessly waste taxpayer dollars on the inevitable lawsuits that will follow. Governor McCrory should take a stand for transparency and accountability and veto this bill without delay.” Read more