North Carolina has lost a passionate and irreplaceable advocate. On Easter Sunday, renowned capital defense attorney and CDPL Board Vice-President Franklin E. Wells Jr. died suddenly at his home. He was 60. He left behind his wife, Gay, and their three daughters, Annah, Emily and Molly.
Frank was the longtime law partner of Jon Megerian. Together, they ran Megerian & Wells in Asheboro, taking on some of the region’s most difficult capital cases and saving their clients from the death penalty. In 2011, their zealous advocacy won a second-degree murder conviction for a man who overdosed on medications before killing eight people in a Carthage nursing home. And in 2006, they secured a life sentence for a man with severe mental illness who killed four people in Gaston County. In these and other cases, juries were swayed to eschew the death penalty by Frank and Jon’s tireless work to tell the whole story of their clients’ humanity and frailties. In 2018, Frank and Jon won CDPL’s J. Kirk Osborn Award for their decades of stellar lawyering and their commitment to training and mentoring other capital attorneys across North Carolina.
Frank was also involved in statewide litigation that exposed systemic racial inequities in jury selection. In February, he made a powerful argument before the N.C. Supreme Court, in which he urged the court to finally acknowledge racial discrimination against African American jurors. In his typical soft spoken style, he asked the court to reckon with North Carolina’s legacy of racism, and he led by example. He told the seven justices that his own family has lived in North Carolina since 1700 and that historical documents show his ancestors enslaved other human beings. “When I talk about the troubling, very uncomfortable history we have in this state with race, I’m talking about my history too. Until we confront our history of discrimination, we’re going to continue to have problems in this state.”
In addition to working closely with CDPL on many cases, Frank served on the CDPL board for more than a decade. “Frank was a wonderful lawyer and a terrific human being,” said CDPL Executive Director Gretchen M. Engel. “He saved lives in so many cases, and he was ever loyal to his clients. When his former client had a hearing in federal court recently, Frank came to court just to support him, even though it had been more than a decade since Frank represented him. He was a great teacher and donated countless hours to CDPL. Frank was always patient and kind; I respected him tremendously and I’m going to miss him terribly.”
Frank’s family has kindly asked that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to CDPL. Go here to donate in Frank’s memory.