On Nov. 9, CDPL client James Morgan was removed from death row after his attorneys argued that Morgan never got the fair trial to which the Constitution entitles him. The jury that sentenced Morgan to death 19 years ago wasn’t told about his his severe and lifelong brain damage from three separate traumatic brain injuries, beginning in childhood. This is exactly the type of evidence that typically persuades juries to choose life instead of death. With the approval of Buncombe District Attorney Todd Williams, Morgan will now serve life without parole. Read more from one of his attorneys, Elizabeth Hambourger.
On October 11, CDPL honored two of our community’s most outstanding capital defense attorneys, law partners Frank Wells and Jon Megerian. [Go here to read more about their exceptional careers.] Despite a hurricane and a power outage, we managed to have a powerful night celebrating their many accomplishments.
Thanks to photographer Les Todd for volunteering his time to document the evening.
It’s hard to describe what it feels like to be a capital defense attorney. To be responsible for saving the lives of people who’ve committed terrible crimes, and sometimes, to be forced to watch them die. In this video, CDPL attorney Elizabeth Hambourger explains in moving and personal terms what it’s like to do this most difficult of jobs.
She performed this spoken word piece at Poetic Justice, an event organized by the Carolina Justice Policy Center, in which poets, advocates, attorneys, and others told stories of the criminal justice system. Take a few minutes to watch, and step into someone else’s world.
The more I know about the death penalty, the more problems I see with it. But what seems most pressing to me now is that the death penalty increases pain. It’s like a machine that takes this terribly painful human event, and it takes that pain and replicates it and sends it spewing out in all directions.
How Obsolete Laws and Unfair Trials Created North Carolina’s Outsized Death Row
The death penalty is all but extinct in North Carolina. Juries have recommended only a single new death sentence in the past four years. The state hasn’t carried out an execution since 2006. Yet, North Carolina has the sixth largest death row in the nation, with more than 140 men and women. It is a relic of another era.
More than 100 of N.C.’s death row prisoners — about three-quarters — were sentenced in the 1990s, under wildly different laws. During those years, North Carolina juries sent dozens of people a year to death row, more than Texas. The state’s courtrooms were dominated by prosecutors like Ken Honeycutt in Stanly County, who celebrated new death sentences by handing out noose lapel pins to his assistant prosecutors.
Beginning in 2001, after investigations and DNA testing began to reveal innocent people on death row, a wave of reforms transformed the landscape. New laws guaranteed capital defendants such basic rights as trained defense attorneys and the right to see all the evidence in their cases. A court mandate requiring prosecutors to seek death for virtually every first-degree murder — the only such requirement in the nation — was ended.
Today, the death penalty is seen as a tool to be used sparingly, instead of a bludgeon to be wielded in virtually every first-degree murder case. Yet, new laws and shifting public opinion have had little impact on prisoners sentenced in another era. The bulk of North Carolina’s death row is now made up of people who were tried 15, 20, even 25 years ago. They are prisoners of a state that has moved on, but has refused to reckon with its past.
Read the full report:
CDPL’s report, Unequal Justice, finds that out of 142 death row prisoners in North Carolina:
92% (131) were tried before a 2008 package of reforms intended to prevent false confessions and mistaken eyewitness identifications, which have been leading causes of wrongful convictions across the country. The new laws require interrogations and confessions to be recorded in homicide cases and set strict guidelines for eyewitness line-up procedures.
84% (119) were tried before a law granting defendants the right to see all the evidence in the prosecutor’s file — including information that might help reduce their sentence or prove their innocence.
73% (104) were sentenced before laws barring the execution of people with intellectual disabilities. Despite a promise of relief for these less culpable defendants, disabled prisoners remain on death row.
73% (103) were sentenced before the creation of a statewide indigent defense agency that drastically improved the quality of representation for poor people facing the death penalty, and a law ending an unprecedented requirement that prosecutors pursue the death penalty in every aggravated first-degree murder. Before these changes, prosecutors did not have the ability to seek life sentences in these cases and poor people often received a sub-standard defense.
CDPL attorneys have taken on a clear case of racial discrimination during the death penalty trial of our client Russell Tucker. The evidence shows that the prosecutor in Tucker’s case used a “cheat sheet” to get around a law that prohibits prosecutors from striking jurors based on race. Recently, this in depth article was published about the case.
Also this month, former CDPL board member James Coleman, published a new article showing that N.C. appellate courts have been uniquely remiss in failing to protect the rights of people of color to serve on juries and thereby participate in our democracy. This article arose from the work of CDPL staff.
If you need a quick explanation of the problem of race discrimination in capital jury selection, watch CDPL’s 3-minute video:
CDPL employees spent the spring and summer criss-crossing rural North Carolina, interviewing jurors who unanimously voted to send Henry McCollum to death row. Now that McCollum has been exonerated, the jurors struggle with regret and confusion. “Some seemed relieved to finally talk through the trauma of the trial. Many were ashamed of their role, afraid of what their neighbors would think. Some feared God’s wrath, and wondered if they would go to hell for McCollum’s wrongful conviction. Some shed tears at the mention of his name and said the experience was too painful to revisit. They remembered McCollum at the defense table, silent and unresponsive, like a confused and broken child.”
Read more of Kristin Collins’ op-ed from the News & Observer.
CDPL’s Executive Director Gretchen Engel writes about her continuing grief for her client, Quentin Jones, who was executed 15 years ago today. “I watched him die 15 years ago, and I still talk to him sometimes. I talked to him a lot in the weeks after he was killed and thought maybe I was going a little crazy. And then I thought, it’s probably normal to go a little crazy when you see somebody killed 10 feet in front of you, somebody you knew really well and cared about and tried so hard to save. I’m talking about my client, Quentin Jones, who was executed at 2 a.m. on August 22, 2003. Quentin was 18, homeless, and addicted to drugs in 1987, when he robbed a convenience store with an Uzi 9mm pistol.”
Read the full essay here.
During more than 20 years as law partners in Asheboro, Jon Megerian and Frank Wells have demonstrated an unwavering commitment to excellence in capital defense. Their tenacity in and out of the courtroom prompted the Center for Death Penalty Litigation to make them joint recipients of this year’s J. Kirk Osborn Award. They exemplify the leadership, determination, and compassion that are Kirk’s legacy.
Jon and Frank have distinguished themselves by winning life-saving verdicts in some of the most difficult capital cases. In 2011, their client Robert Stewart faced the death penalty for a shooting rampage in a Carthage nursing home that left seven elderly patients and a nurse dead. Stewart was convicted of second-degree murder after Megerian and Wells proved to the jury that Stewart had overdosed on medications and did not even remember his actions on the day of the shooting. And at the 2006 capital trial of Keith Hall, who was accused of murdering four people in a Gaston County trailer park, Megerian and Wells frontloaded powerful mental health evidence. As a result, although Hall was convicted, jurors deadlocked at sentencing after the confounded DA contended that they should not recognize the defendant’s intellectual disability, and should rather attribute his problems to his paranoid schizophrenia. And in 2004, just 15 hours before his scheduled execution, Charles Walker received a stay. Walter ultimately won a new trial and was released from prison.
Jon and Frank have also offered invaluable help to other defense attorneys, and have always been willing to guide and empower fellow lawyers. They have served as teachers at CDPL’s Capital College and facilitated many trainings on the Wymore jury selection method, allowing other lawyers to select juries that will save their clients’ lives. With their own work, they have raised expectations for attorney performance; in their roles as teachers and mentors, they help elevate their peers to meet those standards.
Frank is a member of the NC Advocates for Justice, National Legal Aid and Defenders Association, and the National Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers, as well as a past president of the Randolph County Bar Association. He is also a member of CDPL’s board of directors. Jon is a former member of the Board of Governors for the NC Academy of Trial Lawyers, and a past Bar Councilor for the NC State Bar.
“Their brains, passion, skill, creativity, generosity, tenacity, resilience, compassion, and quick humor – gentle and reflective on Frank’s part, ferocious and sarcastic on Jon’s – make them ideal recipients of the high honor that accompanies this award,” said Janet Moore, former N.C. assistant appellate defender and now a professor of law at the University of Cincinnati. “They literally ‘raise the bar’ by providing a model towards which others can aspire.”
CDPL’s Executive Director Gretchen M. Engel was interviewed recently by the radio program A Better World, which gives an in-depth look into people and organizations “working to create a world that works for everyone.” In this wide-ranging interview, you can learn about CDPL’s work to advance the cases of death-sentenced men and women and end the death penalty.