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.