Thanks to N.C. Policy Watch for helping us get the word out about our ambitious new project, Racist Roots. They recently interviewed Kristin Collins, CDPL’s associate director of public information, about how Racist Roots came to be and what it’s all about. Please listen to this 15-minute interview to understand why this project means so much to us.
For More Information Contact:
Gretchen Engel, CDPL Executive Director – firstname.lastname@example.org 919-682-3983
Henderson Hill, ACLU Capital Punishment Project Senior Counsel – HHill@aclu.org 704-502-1145
Durham, NC — On Monday, the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, in collaboration with scholars, advocates, artists, historians, poets, and people directly affected by the death penalty, launched a new online project, Racist Roots: Origins of North Carolina’s Death Penalty.
The project includes essays, poetry, artwork, commentary, and historical documents that place the state’s death penalty in the context of 400 years of history and expose its deep entanglement with slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, and modern systemic racism. The death penalty, the project contends, is another Confederate monument that North Carolina must tear down. [Read the essay that sums up this project.]
“The death penalty began as a way to enforce a racist social order, and as it evolved through the generations, our state never addressed the original sin that lay at its root,” said CDPL Executive Director Gretchen Engel. “Today, the death penalty is the apex of a racist criminal punishment system that cages hundreds of thousands of people and declares human lives, particularly those of Black people, expendable. The clear message of this project is: Any meaningful conversation about race and criminal justice in North Carolina must include the death penalty.”
Engel continued, “In light of all that this project reveals, we call on the North Carolina Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice to undertake serious study of the North Carolina death penalty and recommend its repeal.”
Racist Roots shows that in every incarnation, from slavery to post-Civil War Reconstruction, to Jim Crow, and to the modern criminal punishment system, those wielding the death penalty have imposed it disproportionately on Black people; valued the lives of white victims above all others; and excluded citizens of color from power by systematically excluding them from capital juries. So, while the precise influence of racism in the death penalty has changed from era to era, its essential nature has not.
Today, people of color make up less than 30 percent of North Carolina’s population but 60 percent of its death row. Black defendants are far more likely to be wrongly convicted; eight out of ten of North Carolina’s death row exonerees are Black and a ninth is Latino. Nearly half of the people on death row had an all-white jury or a jury with only a single person of color. Qualified Black jurors are two and a half times more likely than whites to be struck from capital juries. Defendants are twice as likely to be sentenced to death if they’re accused of killing a white person, rather than a person of color.
The project details the cases of some of North Carolina’s nearly 140 current death row prisoners to expose racism’s continuing influence. For example, Andrew Ramseur was sentenced to death in 2010 amid a racist public outcry comparing him to a “monkey” and demanding he be hung “from the nearest traffic light as a warning to the rest.” Rather than condemning bigotry, the district attorney promised — and successfully sought — a quick death sentence.
“It’s stunning to read these case studies. Proof positive that the modern death penalty continues the shameful legacy of racialized violence by the state,” said Henderson Hill, Senior Counsel at the ACLU Capital Punishment Project and member of the N.C. Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice. “We see Black and Latino men quickly condemned by all-white juries organized by prosecutors too often willing to use racist tropes to recall the jury’s traditional duty to protect the white citizenry. In several cases, jurors openly admitted their bigotry and their desire for the lynchings of Black men.”
Hill wrote the introduction to the project, in which he says: “As we begin a long-overdue conversation about the future of police and prisons, we must confront the punishment that sits at the top of that system, condoning all its other cruelties — the death penalty.”
Author and historian Tim Tyson writes: “White skin has always been a badge of authority to destroy Black bodies. In North Carolina, white people have exerted that authority not just through police brutality, but through mob violence, lynching, and the death penalty.”
UNC historian Seth Kotch, whose book Lethal State details the history of the N.C. death penalty, says the death penalty and lynching were not opposing forces, but two ways of achieving the same aim. “The reality of history is that both answered the same demands and reacted to the same fears.”
African American death row prisoner Paul Brown writes about the experience of being sentenced to death by an all-white jury. “I saw [the prosecutor’s] shoulders relax as each prospective juror of color left the courtroom.”
Emancipate NC Executive Director Dawn Blagrove writes that Black women have always been the heart of movements for racial justice, including the fight to end the death penalty. “Harriet Tubman led us to freedom. Ida B. Wells exposed the barbarism of lynching. Fannie Lou Hamer led us to political power. Not because of esoteric principle or moral dilemma, but out of necessity.”
Andre Smith, whose son was murdered in Raleigh, says the death penalty is another way that society throws away Black lives. He calls for compassion and mentoring for those who have committed crimes. “This is how we change the world. Not by taking someone’s life.”
Miriam Krinsky and Liz Komar, two former prosecutors, now in leadership roles at Fair and Just Prosecution, write that their pursuit of a more racially just criminal system must leave the death penalty behind. “We both became prosecutors out of a deep desire to do justice and make our communities safer — and we’ve concluded that the death penalty is incompatible with both.”
Sherrilyn Ifill and Jin Hee Lee, of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, one of the nation’s premier civil rights law firms, speak to the ways in which North Carolina could become a national leader in addressing racism in its courts. Based on recent N.C. Supreme Court decisions on the Racial Justice Act, they say, “this southern state might serve as an example for the rest of the nation to follow.”
Racist Roots is the result of more than a year of research, writing, and collaboration. It relies on scholarly writings, as well as historical documents and newspaper accounts, and CDPL’s deep knowledge of North Carolina death penalty cases.
“When we started this project, we knew that the death penalty was racist. We’ve seen how it produces disparate outcomes, how it’s used to threaten vulnerable people into confessing to crimes, how it’s carried out in courtrooms where every person wielding power is white,” Engel said.
“But we didn’t realize until we undertook deep research just how closely tied the modern death penalty is to our state’s history of violent white supremacy. The death penalty is a tool of the lynch mob and, no matter how much tinkering we do, it cannot be fixed. The only solution is to end it.”
WATCH THE AWARD PRESENTATION ON YOUTUBE (Thursday, October 15 at 7 p.m.)
CDPL is proud to announce that Malcolm “Tye” Hunter is the winner of this year’s J. Kirk Osborn Award for outstanding leadership in capital defense. This year’s ceremony honoring Tye will be at 7 p.m. on Thursday, October 15. The event is online. Simply go to cdpl.org and follow the link on our homepage to join us in celebrating Tye’s good work.
Though we can’t be together in person, we’ve done our best to make this an engaging event that reminds our community of the power and importance of capital defense work. There will be an appearance by a nationally known capital defense leader, as well as a moving musical performance. You don’t have to register, but we hope you will donate to CDPL’s work.
Suggested donation levels are:
We welcome donations of any amount, either in advance or during the event.
Tye Hunter: A career fighting the death penalty
Tye has devoted four decades to advancing indigent defense and fighting the death penalty. Tye worked as an assistant public defender in Fayetteville and then came to the Appellate Defender’s Office. He was the second director of OAD and while serving in that leadership role, he represented dozens of capital cases, winning new trials and new sentencing hearings for many. Tye appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court in McKoy v. North Carolina. Tye’s victory in this single case resulted in relief for nearly 50 men and women who had received unconstitutional death sentences.
Tye was the first director of the N.C. Office of Indigent Defense Services and created the infrastructure that ensured qualified counsel, supported capital defense teams, and, not surprisingly, saw a dramatic drop in the number of death sentences returned in our state.
Tye next served as CDPL’s executive director from 2009 to 2013. He shepherded the office during the early years of the Racial Justice Act litigation. Tye was personally part of the RJA team that won relief for Marcus Robinson and three other Cumberland County capital defendants following two evidentiary hearings under the RJA. During those hearings, Tye’s fierce advocacy and famous wit were on full display and contributed greatly to these enormous victories.
Tye continued to represent death-sentenced clients after leaving CDPL, including Rayford Burke, another RJA client. Tye’s oral argument in the N.C. Supreme Court was a model of appellate advocacy and this past June, the court granted relief to Mr. Burke.
The J. Kirk Osborn Award
J. Kirk Osborn was one of the giants of the capital defense community. Kirk defended more than a dozen capital cases and never had a client sentenced to death. His advocacy and deep compassion for his clients saved many lives, and inspired other attorneys to follow in his footsteps. Each year, the Center for Death Penalty Litigation honors Kirk’s legacy by presenting the J. Kirk Osborn Award for lifelong zealous advocacy, compassion for indigent men and women facing the death penalty, and leadership among capital defense attorneys.
CDPL is a non-profit law firm and advocacy organization that works to provide the highest quality representation to people facing execution, and to end the death penalty in North Carolina. CDPL’s commitment to representing indigent and disadvantaged defendants just as vigorously as corporate lawyers defend their highest-paying clients, and training other capital attorneys across the state to do the same, has saved the lives of many who faced execution. In addition to representing individual clients, CDPL spearheads litigation and public education campaigns that address systemic injustices and cast light on the arbitrariness and unfairness of our state’s capital punishment system. Our team of attorneys, mitigation investigators, paralegals, and public education specialists has been successful in identifying strategic opportunities to change public opinion and reduce the use of the death penalty. Over the past decade, CDPL has been a leading force in stopping executions in North Carolina.
CDPL is committed to exposing and challenging the racial bias inherent in the death penalty and to building an organizational culture of racial equity in all aspects of our work, from litigation and investigation to public education and advocacy. CDPL team members are encouraged to participate in cross-disciplinary projects that further our goals of ending the death penalty and promoting racial equity. CDPL is an equal opportunity employer, and we welcome qualified applicants of all races, ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations. We seek to recruit attorneys with diverse experiences and backgrounds who are committed to furthering our racial equity goals. Our racial equity statement can be found here.
CDPL is seeking to hire an attorney with at least two years of relevant experience interested in working on post-conviction cases and, if desired, trial cases. Relevant experience may include clinics and internships during law school.
In addition to these qualifications, ideal candidates will have:
- A commitment to ending the death penalty and addressing systemic unfairness
- Strong oral and written communications skills
- An understanding of issues common in capital cases, including mental illness, poverty, racism, and substance abuse
- An interest in advocacy and public education, in addition to direct representation of clients
Applicants should send a cover letter by August 31, 2020, detailing interest, as well as a resume, the names of two professional references, and a writing sample of approximately 10 pages to Ms. Barrie Wallace at email@example.com. For additional information, please contact Barrie Wallace at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A message from CDPL Executive Director Gretchen M. Engel:
When I came to North Carolina in 1992 to work against the death penalty, my first client was an African American man who’d been convicted of killing a white state trooper. My next client was an African American man whose white girlfriend persuaded him to kill her estranged white husband. An all-white jury sentenced him to death; the girlfriend got life. In 1999, my Black client Harvey Green was executed for killing two white people during a robbery. In fact, if you’d looked at my client list over the years, you’d think most of the violence in this country has been carried out by poor Black people — and that most of the victims were white.
However, in fighting against the death penalty, we at CDPL have necessarily steeped ourselves in the history of racial oppression in America. We understand the torturous journey from slavery to lynching and racial terror, to Jim Crow and the modern death penalty. Because we’ve studied this history, we know that much of the violence in our country has been carried out not by the people on death row, but by white people, some of them carrying badges or sitting in the highest positions of power, seeking to maintain the social order. And most of the people murdered in this country have never gotten justice.
This is what the Halifax County Courthouse looked like less than 50 years before my first client’s trial there:
Today, we see the legacy of racist violence in the death penalty, and also in the public executions of George Floyd and Armaud Arbery. In the killings of Philando Castile, Keith Scott, Eric Garner, Danquirs Franklin, and so many others. Too many others. My heart breaks for their families, and for our country that is still so poisoned by racism.
People work at CDPL because they believe in the inherent dignity and worth of every human being. We also believe deep in our bones that Black lives matter. And I want to make a few things clear:
- We support the overwhelmingly peaceful and necessary protests against police violence.
- We respect the leadership of Black-led organizations like Black Lives Matter, Emancipate NC, and the NAACP. We defer to them about the best way to stand up to racism and police violence in this moment.
CDPL will continue to fight against the racist state violence of the death penalty. But we also see that the death penalty is just one tool of oppression, and that we must be in solidarity with other movements for racial justice. To all who fight racism and oppression, we stand with you.
I hope we can turn our grief and pain into real change and that the strength of the ongoing protests will move our policy makers, courts, and public agencies to face and dismantle the systemic racism that has plagued the country for 400 years. I hope for concrete and meaningful reform. CDPL looks forward to working with all of you to make that happen.
CDPL founder and former director Henderson Hill is joining the defense team of Curtis Flowers, a death-sentenced man in Mississippi whose extraordinary case rose to national prominence after a gripping podcast revealed that he is innocent.
Flowers is facing a seventh trial for the same crime. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned his case earlier this year after finding that the prosecutor had systematically excluded African American jurors at all six of Flowers’ previous trials. Now, the same district attorney appears poised to try Flowers again, even after the previous six trials either ended in hung juries or were overturned because of prosecutorial misconduct. Meanwhile, Flowers has spent 22 years in prison, most of it on death row, for a crime he didn’t commit.
“A good friend has famously observed that our criminal justice system treats you better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent,” said Hill. “The justice system’s serial abuse of Curtis Flowers — poor, black and innocent — must and will stop. I am honored to work with Rob McDuff and the Mississippi Center for Justice to achieve that to which Mr. Flowers is so deeply entitled: a full measure of justice and vindication.”
The evidence of racist jury selection in Flowers’ case is strikingly similar to evidence that CDPL helped uncover in North Carolina under the Racial Justice Act. CDPL is litigating dozens of cases in which black jurors across North Carolina were illegally denied the right to serve because of their race.
Hill has spent his career fighting against the death penalty and championing civil rights. In addition to founding CDPL, he directed the Eighth Amendment Project, a national nonprofit that works to end the death penalty. His work has helped many people avoid death sentences and execution. In 2014, he won CDPL’s J. Kirk Osborn Award for leadership in capital defense.
“Henderson Hill is known throughout the country as an excellent lawyer with considerable courtroom experience in criminal defense and capital cases,” said McDuff. “He is a tireless proponent of fairness in our justice system, and his presence will add greatly to the effort to finally obtain justice for Curtis Flowers.”
On August 26 and 27, CDPL attorneys were part of an amazing team that argued six Racial Justice Act cases before the North Carolina Supreme Court. These cases go to the heart of our work to bring to light the injustice of the death penalty. We presented clear evidence that these death sentences were poisoned by racial discrimination and cannot stand. Here are a few memories from those momentous days. Read more here about the Racial Justice Act and why it matters.
CDPL has always known that it takes a team to win a death penalty case. Often, an attorney’s most trusted teammate is the mitigation investigator. Together, they undertake some of the most grueling and emotional work of a capital case: tracking down family members, investigating crime facts, sorting through a lifetime’s worth of records and documents, in addition to spending many hours with the client. Often, the results of that collaboration make the difference between life and death for our clients. That’s why this year, CDPL’s award for outstanding work in death penalty cases goes to a team: Bob Trenkle, an attorney who has spent three decades defending capital clients, and Etta Blankenship, the private investigator, who also does mitigation work, who has worked beside Bob on many of his death penalty cases.
“Bob and Etta exemplify what we mean when we say team defense,” said CDPL Executive Director Gretchen M. Engel. “They have shown us over decades what it means to care about clients and to devote yourself to saving people’s lives.”
Bob and Etta began working together in 1991, when both worked for the Orange County Public Defender’s Office. Bob has now represented more than 100 capital clients, and taken eight cases to capital trial, as well as representing several capital clients in post-conviction proceedings. Etta has been his first pick as an investigator on every one of his cases. In 2001, the two worked together to shape North Carolina’s first Capital Defender’s Office. They helped set the capital defense standards that have made death penalty verdicts rare in North Carolina. Both have also devoted untold hours to mentoring other capital defense teams throughout the state.
Bob has worked as a public defender in both Florida and North Carolina. He also taught law at the University of Florida Law School. He has been with the firm of Edwards & Trenkle since 2002. He is a Board Certified lawyer in both federal and state criminal law. He has lectured and taught attorneys on defending capital murder charges in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Texas, most recently in April. Bob has volunteered as an instructor at numerous training seminars on capital defense, and defense attorneys across the state say he is always willing to take their call and offer as much of his time as they need.
Etta was licensed as a private investigator in 2003. At that time, she began traveling the state doing fact and mitigation investigations in capital cases. Etta is known for her caring touch with clients and building the trust required to help them make good decisions about their defense. In 2017, in addition to dealing with her own cases, she flew to be with a friend whose brother was facing execution in Arkansas. Etta went to the prison with her friend while she had her final visit with her brother and was also at the prison with her friend during the execution of her brother. Afterwards, Etta wrote this moving piece about that experience.
Bob and Etta never rest on their victories. As soon as they win one case, they move on to saving the next life. We hope that, at our award reception in September, they will finally take a moment to celebrate their many accomplishments. BUY YOUR TICKETS HERE.
The J. Kirk Osborn Award
It has now been more than a decade since we lost J. Kirk Osborn, one of the giants of the capital defense community. Kirk defended more than a dozen capital cases and never had a client sentenced to death. His advocacy and deep compassion for his clients saved many lives, and inspired other attorneys to follow in his footsteps. Each year, the Center for Death Penalty Litigation honors Kirk’s legacy by presenting the J. Kirk Osborn Award for lifelong zealous advocacy, compassion for indigent men and women facing the death penalty, and leadership among capital defense attorneys.
From Gretchen M. Engel, Executive Director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation:
Today’s verdict in Wake County does not reflect the views of the majority of citizens in North Carolina. All it shows is that, if you try ten death penalty cases in a row and exclude from the jury all the people who oppose the death penalty, you can find a jury that will sentence a person to death despite the death penalty’s documented unfairness.
By law, juries in capital trials include only people who support the death penalty, which polls tell us are now a minority in North Carolina. However, even with juries stacked in favor of the death penalty, only two of the past seventeen capital trials in North Carolina have ended with death sentences. In Wake County the ratio is even lower. This is the only death verdict of the past ten capital trials.
Seaga Gillard committed a serious crime for which he should be punished. But was he the worst of the worst? Wake County jurors have rejected the death penalty in cases of rape and murder, including rape and murder of a child. Wake County jurors have refused to impose the death penalty in other double homicide cases and even in a case in which the defendant was convicted of murdering five people. All today’s verdict shows is what we already knew: That the death penalty is imposed arbitrarily, and disproportionately on black men.
Since taking over as Wake district attorney, Lorrin Freeman has pursued the death penalty more than any other prosecutor in North Carolina, costing taxpayers millions of dollars. That is a poor investment, even in this case. Executions have been on hold since 2006 and most death row prisoners in North Carolina have been awaiting execution for more than 20 years. Gillard will now join them, awaiting an execution that is unlikely to ever be carried out.