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 Wednesday, a Granville County jury deliberated only about two hours before rejecting the death penalty and sentencing CDPL client Eric Campbell to life with no possibility of parole. In the end, adding the threat of execution to the mix only made this tragic case more painful and protracted.
Campbell was represented at trial by William Durham, CDPL’s director of Investigative Services, and Amos Tyndall.
The trial started in May, with the arduous process of selecting a “death-qualified” jury, which means finding people who are willing to vote for a person’s execution but also able to consider circumstances that call for mercy. Jury selection took more than three weeks. In a non-capital trial, it usually takes two or three days.
The trial was lengthened by several extended breaks, including one after the jury had difficulty in deliberations due to the emotional intensity of the case and then a juror was involved in a serious car accident. The guilt phase alone lasted nearly two months. Add another week for the penalty phase, which happens only in capital trials — and in this case involved bringing in witnesses from Texas who had just endured Hurricane Harvey.
All this to seek the death penalty for a young man who the jury, during sentencing, found was a minor participant in the event and acted under the domination of his father.
Eric’s mentally ill and abusive father, Edward Campbell, planned and carried out the brutal murders of Jerome and Dora Faulkner. Edward, who terrorized Eric throughout his childhood, brought his 21-year-old son along mostly as a frightened spectator. Edward killed himself in jail, leaving Eric to face murder charges alone.
The trial carried a huge cost for everyone involved — the jurors, the attorneys, the DA’s office, the community, and almost certainly, the family of the victims. All to arrive at a result that could have been achieved in a couple weeks instead of several months.
In 1999, David Gainey was sentenced to death in North Carolina based almost entirely on his own confession — even though that confession was coerced and clearly contradicted the physical evidence in the case. Among the facts Gainey got wrong were the location of the shooting, the number of shots fired, the victim’s state of consciousness after the shooting, and the location of the weapon.
Last week, in light of serious questions about his role in the crime, Gainey won a new sentence. He agreed to plead guilty to second-degree murder and will serve 26 years.
It was a long overdue resolution in a case that underscores the waste and sloppiness of our capital punishment system. Gainey was a former client of CDPL, and our attorneys began their fight to overturn his sentence 15 years ago. It took nearly two decades, the work of dozens of lawyers, and untold thousands of dollars to expose the injustice of Gainey’s death sentence and reach a just conclusion.
Gainey is yet another example of North Carolina’s penchant for pursuing the death penalty in cases with flimsy evidence. Rather than fully investigating crimes, law enforcement frequently uses the threat of execution to pressure suspects into confessing. It was this type of police work that led to the false confessions of Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, who were exonerated in 2014, three decades after being sentenced to death for a murder they did not commit.
In Gainey’s case, just like McCollum and Brown’s, police had little to go on except an inconsistent confession dragged out of him during hours of interrogation. When a team of two CDPL attorneys and a mitigation investigator were assigned to Gainey’s case in 2002, they quickly discovered a case full of holes.
Police arrested Gainey in 1998, after he was spotted driving a car belonging to Dwayne McNeill, an 18-year-old from Harnett County who was missing and later found dead. Investigators used coercive tactics, including threats to charge Gainey’s younger brother with the crime, to elicit three separate and conflicting confessions. The police investigation ended with Gainey’s confession, meaning that clues that might have pointed to a different killer were never gathered.
Despite the many questions raised by Gainey’s confession, the N.C. Supreme Court affirmed his conviction and death sentence. But after extensive investigation by CDPL’s team, the Supreme Court took the rare step of granting Gainey a new evidentiary hearing.
At the hearing in 2009, CDPL attorney David Neal and private attorney Don Cowan presented strong evidence that their client’s confession was false and unreliable, and they showed that the state had withheld critical evidence from the defense at trial. Superior Court Judge Gregory A. Weeks ordered a new trial.
Since then, CDPL Board Secretary Buddy Conner has been part of Gainey’s defense team. He and Chatham County attorney Bob Trenkle worked for years to reach last week’s deal, which finally removes David Gainey from the shadow of the execution chamber for good.
In a just system, Gainey would never have been tried capitally to begin with and tens of thousands of dollars would have been saved.
CDPL attorneys Elizabeth Hambourger and Vernetta Alston were part of the team that won a life sentence for Nathan Holden in Wake County on March 3. The jury rejected both the state’s claim that the murder was premeditated and that the death penalty was warranted. It was the eighth capital trial in a row in which a Wake County jury chose life without parole over a death sentence. Here you can watch Elizabeth Hambourger give her moving closing argument, in which she asked the jury to save her client’s life.
Last week, a CDPL client who spent nearly 20 years on death row was re-sentenced to life in prison without parole. This was a sane resolution to a senseless and much-regretted crime committed by a deeply troubled teenager.
Phillip Davis was re-sentenced with the full of support Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams, who acknowledged unfairness in Davis’ case. “Our system has built-in checks on abuses such as discrimination and prosecutorial misconduct. When the system is not allowed to work as it’s naturally intended to, that’s when you have a problem,” Williams told the Asheville Citizen Times.
Davis was represented by Shelagh Kenney, CDPL’s Director of Post-Conviction Litigation, and Mark Kleinschmidt.
Davis was among the more than three-quarters of N.C. death row inmates who were sentenced to death before 2001, when vastly different laws led to dozens of people being sent to death row each year. Now, with executions on hold for a decade and juries imposing an average of only one death sentence a year, they languish on death row year after year.
Settling these old cases for sentences of life imprisonment with no possibility of parole would end costly appeals and ensure that defendants are never released from prison — while giving a punishment that is far more fitting with North Carolina’s current standards of justice. Once in general population, inmates cost less to house and can get jobs that allow them to contribute to society.
In Davis’ case, he was just four months past the age that would now make him ineligible for the death penalty when, as a high school senior, he killed his cousin, Caroline Miller, and his aunt, Joyce Miller, after an argument. Davis was living with them because his mother — a lifelong drug addict who had subjected him to a traumatic childhood — was in prison.
Davis, whose IQ puts him in the range of borderline intellectual functioning, immediately accepted responsibility for his crimes and expressed deep remorse. He voiced his sorrow and regret for his actions again in court last week, his voice choked with emotion: “To family members and anyone who knew Joyce and Caroline, they were two very special people who were loved by a lot of people including myself. I regret everything that happened and it’s something I’ll regret for the rest of my life.”
The prosecutor who agreed to his new sentence acknowledged that race wrongly played a role in selecting the all-white jury that sentenced Davis to death in 1997. It is illegal to strike jurors based on race, and in 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed that in the strongest terms ever.
The problem was compounded when prosecutors in Davis’ case took the unusual step of shredding many of their notes from jury selection, making it impossible to examine them for evidence of racial bias.
The victims’ family members said they were satisfied with the life sentence. They have worked over many years to rebuild their relationship with Davis, and his new sentence allows the family’s healing to continue.
It’s a resolution that makes sense for all involved.