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.
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.”
For Immediate Release: December 14, 2017
For More Information Contact: Gretchen Engel, 919-682-3983
Durham, NC — North Carolina juries rejected the death penalty in 2017, refusing to impose death sentences at any of the four trials where prosecutors sought them and making this year the third since 2012 with no new death sentences.
Juries in Wake, Granville and Guilford counties all chose life without parole instead of death this year. At a fourth capital trial in Robeson County, the jury said the defendant was guilty only of second-degree murder and he was sentenced to a term of years.
Only a single person has been sent to N.C. death row in the past three and a half years, and most of the state’s district attorneys are no longer seeking the death penalty. North Carolina has not executed an inmate since 2006 because of ongoing litigation over the state’s lethal injection procedures and racial bias in capital trials.
“There are some elected officials in North Carolina who still like to talk about the death penalty for political purposes, but that’s about the only way it’s being used anymore,” said Gretchen M. Engel, executive director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham. “The reality is most citizens of North Carolina no longer have any use for the death penalty, not after seeing an innocent man like Henry McCollum spend 30 years there.”
McCollum was released in 2014, after DNA testing proved he was innocent of the 1983 crime for which he was sentenced to death. Nationally, four more death row inmates were exonerated in 2017, bringing the total to 160. A Gallup poll released in October found that Americans’ support for the death penalty had reached its lowest point in 45 years. [See also: The national Death Penalty Information Center released its year-end report Thursday.]
Also in 2017, more questions of innocence arose in North Carolina. Michael Patrick Ryan, who was sentenced to death in 2010 in Gaston County, is awaiting a new trial after a judge ruled in February that misleading DNA evidence was used against him and prosecution investigators intimidated Ryan’s alibi witnesses. Scant credible evidence remains against Ryan, who has always claimed his innocence.
Phillip Davis from Buncombe County was also removed from death row in February and resentenced to life without parole after the court found that race played an improper role in selecting the all-white jury that sentenced him to death. Davis, who was just a few months past his 18th birthday at the time of the crime, spent 20 years on death row before being resentenced.
North Carolina’s death row also shrunk this year because five inmates died of natural causes. Today, 140 men and three women remain on death row. Almost half, 69 of them, are 50 or older. More than three-quarters of death row inmates were sentenced at least 15 years ago, in an era when North Carolina juries sentenced to death dozens of people a year under less enlightened laws.
At the time, the law forced prosecutors to go after the death penalty in almost every first-degree murder case, even when they believed the circumstances called for mercy or there were questions of innocence. Defendants on trial for their lives did not have basic protections such as qualified attorneys or laws requiring that confessions be recorded.
“If we were to restart executions, we would be putting to death people who were tried decades ago without basic legal protections,” Engel said. “Executions would do nothing to solve the problems of today. We would be better served to choose life imprisonment instead and divert the millions of dollars we spend on the death penalty to law enforcement and corrections officers, who unlike the death penalty, make our society safer.”
CDPL staff attorney Elizabeth Hambourger writes a moving essay about her client, Terry Ball, who recently died of natural causes after 24 years on death row. “Terry Ball caused a lot of pain in his life, and he also experienced more than his share. The same is certainly true of most of the thousands of men and women still on our nation’s death rows. This is who we sentence to death: the most damaged, the most abused; traumatized children who grow into adults without learning how to cope with their fear and anger. The death penalty says these lives have no value. I disagree.”
Read the full essay here.
On Sept. 28, CDPL honored two of our community’s most outstanding capital defense attorneys: Elaine Gordon, the winner of this year’s Osborn Award, and Ken Rose, winner of the Amsterdam Award. [Go here to read more about their exceptional careers.] Our community shared a beautiful evening at Parizade in Durham. It was an event that reminded us of the urgency of our work and the incredible commitment of our colleagues.
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.