Commentary

Mumma case response: If we’re going to punish lawyers for misconduct, let’s really do so

Kristin Collins of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation authored the following post for the NC Center for Alternatives to the Death Penalty blog today:

Let’s punish lawyers who put innocent people in prison, instead of those who free them

Chris Mumma with Joseph Sledge on the day of his exoneration.

Chris Mumma with Joseph Sledge on the day of his exoneration.

Joseph Sledge spent 37 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. At his trial, the state paid a lying snitch to testify against him. While he was in prison, the district attorney opposed the DNA testing that would eventually prove Sledge’s innocence. And when the long-delayed tests showed Sledge wasn’t the culprit, the state waited another two years to release him from prison.

Now that Sledge is finally free, the only person being punished is the lawyer who fought to prove his innocence, Chris Mumma. On Thursday, the State Bar found that Mumma violated professional ethics by testing a water bottle for DNA without permission from its owner — all in an attempt to gain an innocent man his freedom against long odds. (The test of the water bottle was inconclusive and had no impact on the final outcome.)

We can’t say it better than the N&O’s Barry Saunders:

“It seems like something out of a dystopian, Twilight Zone world that the woman whose efforts rectified a three-decade miscarriage of justice is the only person being held accountable.”

More disturbing, Jon David, the Bladen County district attorney who fought to keep Sledge behind bars, was involved in filing the bar complaint against Mumma. It appeared to be payback for her exposing the many errors in Sledge’s case to the media. The woman from whom the bottle was taken has strongly supported Mumma and her work to free Sledge, and did not want her to be punished.

Again and again, the prosecutors and cops who put innocent people in prison — even send them to death row — face no consequences, even when their misconduct is glaring. Read more

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

State leaders have failed to learn from the McCollum and Brown exonerations

BrownMcCollum-v2-web-60percent-grayThe exonerations of Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were in the news again yesterday as the state, finally and belatedly, got around to agreeing to compensate the men for having ruined their lives.

In case you missed it, however, Kristin Collins of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation posted this insightful take on what the exonerations mean for the system as a whole, why there is every reason to believe that there are more McCollums and Browns out there and the lack of action by state leaders to address this outrageous problem.

One year after N.C.’s most shocking exoneration: What have we learned?

By Kristin Collins

One year ago today, Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were declared innocent in a Robeson County courtroom. It was a case like North Carolina had never seen before.

McCollum was North Carolina’s longest serving death row inmate. During the 31 years that preceded their exonerations, the half-brothers had been held up by countless politicians and judges — including U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia — as examples of the kinds of savage killers who make the death penalty necessary.

Last September, we all realized, three decades too late, that we had been utterly wrong about these two no-longer-young men. Instead of the cold-hearted killers we imagined, they had been scared, intellectually disabled teenagers who were coerced into confessing to a crime they did not commit.

They were poor and African Americans living in a deeply segregated county. They were powerless in a justice system that favors the powerful.

Press from all over the world covered the story. It seemed then that our justice system would never be the same.

And yet, a year later, North Carolina has done little to ensure that their story won’t be repeated.

As Gretchen Engel pointed out in her recent op-ed, the N.C. legislature has not proposed a single bill that would help determine if there are more innocent people on death row — even though more than 100 of North Carolina’s 148 death row inmates, like McCollum and Brown, were tried before the enactment of key reforms designed to protect the innocent.

The problems that plagued Henry’s case have not gone away, as we see from the many wrongful prosecutions that continue to today. A recent report showed that North Carolina routinely targets people with the death penalty based on flawed investigations and weak evidence.

What’s more, McCollum and Brown are still waiting on the meager state compensation to which they are entitled for their decades of wrongful imprisonment. (The payment was finally approved today, but has not yet been issued.)

Let’s not forget the lessons we learned one year ago today — about just how wrong our justice system can get it, and how difficult it can be to uncover the truth.

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