CDPL’s staff has successfully halted dozens of wrongful executions, helped free innocent people from death row, and secured life sentences in cases that otherwise would have resulted in unjust executions. CDPL has also spearheaded litigation that has prevented North Carolina from carrying out any executions since 2006, and played a key role in educating the public about the state’s arbitrary and unfair capital punishment system. Click the links below to learn more about our work.
Sparing innocent people from execution
- Henry McCollum — who was represented by two CDPL attorneys, along with attorneys from the law firm of WilmerHale in Boston — was freed in September 2014 after serving 30 years on death row. His attorneys successfully argued for his immediate release after DNA testing, performed by the N.C. Innocence Inquiry, showed that neither McCollum nor his brother, Leon Brown, who was serving a life sentence, had any involvement in the rape and murder of which they were convicted in 1984.
- A CDPL attorney helped Alan Gell win a new trial by proving that he had an airtight alibi and that prosecutors had hidden evidence that strongly suggested his innocence. The same CDPL attorney also represented Gell at his retrial, where he was found not guilty. Gell was exonerated in 2004, nine years after he was sent to death row.
- CDPL staff intervened in the case of Levon “Bo” Jones just days before his execution date. After more than a decade of work, they proved that there was no credible evidence linking Jones to the crime and that Jones had received virtually no defense from the court-appointed attorneys at his original trial. Jones was freed in 2008, after spending 13 years on death row.
Floyd Brown was charged capitally and faced the death penalty. Mentally disabled, Brown was locked in a psychiatric hospital for 14 years because he was not competent for trial. Brown was freed in 2007 after CDPL attorneys presented evidence of his innocence, including evidence that he signed a false confession he could not even read.
Leading the fight against racial bias in capital punishment
CDPL was a leading force in litigating the NC Racial Justice Act, a groundbreaking law that exposed racial bias in North Carolina’s capital punishment system. Our staff was an integral part of the team that represented four death row inmates who proved that qualified black jurors were systematically removed from the juries that sentenced them to death. All four defendants were resentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The N.C. legislature repealed the Racial Justice Act in 2013, but CDPL will continue to fight on behalf of death-sentenced prisoners who filed motions challenging their death sentences because of racially-biased decisions about charging, sentencing, and jury strikes.
In addition, CDPL has made racial equity a key area of our work. We are committed to exposing and challenging the racial bias inherent in the death penalty, both in individual cases and in the system as a whole. Racial bias is a major focus of our public education and litigation on the death penalty. Read more here about CDPL’s commitment to racial equity.
Protecting people with intellectual disabilities from execution
Winning clemency for unjustly sentenced inmates at imminent risk of execution
CDPL — and its predecessor, the North Carolina Resource Center — has been integral to the efforts of all five people granted clemency by North Carolina governors in the past 20 years.
- Charlie Mason Alston was granted clemency in 2002 after DNA evidence that might have proven his innocence was lost. His federal appeals had also been cut short when Alston’s post-conviction lawyer missed a filing deadline due to cocaine use and mental problems.
- Robert Bacon was sentenced to death even though his white co-defendant, who masterminded the crime, received a life sentence. A juror admitted that race was a factor in sentencing Bacon, who is black, to death. He was granted clemency in 2001.
- Marcus Carter represented himself at the trial that ended with an all-white jury sentencing him to death. The court had refused his requests for new lawyers, despite Carter’s complaints that his court-appointed attorneys had not met with him. He received clemency in 2000.
- Wendell Flowers presented evidence that the prosecutor made completely inconsistent arguments in Flowers’ trial and that of his co-defendant. In seeking the death penalty for the co-defendant, the prosecutor argued Flowers was “just a lookout” but, in Flowers’ own trial, the prosecutor said Flowers inflicted the fatal wounds. Flowers received clemency in 1999, because of the arbitrary use of prosecutorial power in his case.
- No physical evidence linked Anson Avery Maynard to the crime for which he was convicted, and the main testimony against him came from a witness who participated in the killing and received immunity for his testimony. Maynard received clemency in 1992.
Winning relief in court and exposing systemic problems
CDPL attorneys are steadfastly representing death-sentenced men and women at trial and in post-conviction proceedings, exposing serious miscarriages of justice in many cases.
- Kenneth Neal, who was sentenced to death in Rockingham County in 1996, was resentenced to life in prison in 2015, after his attorneys proved that he was intellectually disabled. The state did not oppose the new sentence.
- Shawn Bonnett was removed from death row and resentenced to life imprisonment in 2014, after his attorneys persuaded prosecutors that his death sentence was unfair. Bonnett was one of four people tried for a Martin County murder. Despite the fact that he was not the shooter, he received a stiffer sentence than his more culpable co-defendants.
- Shawn Meier faced the death penalty for a Randolph County murder. CDPL staff documented Meier’s longstanding mental illness and persuaded the trial judge to enter the rare finding that Meier was not guilty by reason of insanity.
- Patricia Jennings, who was sentenced to death in 1990 and had been a CDPL client since 1993, won relief in 2013 on grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel. CDPL also presented evidence that the SBI used falsified blood evidence to argue for her execution. Her death sentence was vacated, and she was resentenced to life.
- CDPL has taken on many cases in which verdicts were tainted by jury misconduct, including that of John Conaway, who was sentenced to death by a jury that included the cousin of one of his co-defendants. The juror lied in order to be allowed to serve on the case. Conaway was resentenced to life. CDPL staff also won a life sentence for Jimmy McNeill after proving that a juror consulted a probation officer to discuss what her punishment decision should be.
- CDPL has represented several clients who received such poor assistance from counsel at their original trials that their sentences were later overturned. In Elmer McNeill’s case, CDPL helped uncover evidence of severe depression and childhood abuse that was never disclosed at McNeill’s trial. He was resentenced to life.
- CDPL has brought to light cases where questionable science was used to help secure convictions. At Rex Penland’s trial, where he was sentenced to death for rape and murder, prosecutors said the semen in the victim and the blood on a knife owned by Penland could not be tested for DNA, though they used this evidence to argue for his guilt. CDPL lawyers had the DNA tests performed and found that the semen did not belong to Penland, and the blood on the knife belonged to Penland, not the victim. Penland was released.
Advocating for the rights of the accused
CDPL has been a tireless advocate for reforms that ensure accused persons have access to all the evidence in their cases, including exculpatory evidence. We successfully pushed for open file discovery, both at trial and in post-conviction proceedings. We discovered that prosecutors had suppressed evidence of innocence in many cases.
CDPL also publicized the fallibility of eyewitness identification and advocated for more reliable procedures in line-ups and interrogations. The state now requires that lineups be conducted by an independent administrator and adhere to specific standards designed to discourage false identifications.
Training and assisting lawyers representing death sentenced clients
CDPL staff are experts in representing condemned inmates in the appeals process. We devote considerable resources to sharing that knowledge, both by offering training in specific areas of the law and by consulting on death penalty cases. CDPL staff have consulted on the cases of all five death row inmates exonerated since our founding in 1989. CDPL has also consulted on the vast majority of post-conviction cases in the past two decades in which death sentences have been overturned.
CDPL creates training programs for lawyers and law students, which are based on the most current research and information about capital litigation. CDPL ran important statewide trainings on the Racial Justice Act and the law barring execution of people with mental retardation. Recently, we worked with N.C. Advocates for Justice on an award-winning training on racial profiling. For many years, CDPL sponsored trainings for trial lawyers on how to conduct effective jury selection, which helped dramatically reduce the number of death sentences imposed in North Carolina.