January 26, 2009
Though it has been little reported, a capital murder trial is ongoing in Charlotte. Michael Wayne Sherrill is accused of the February 1984 murder of Cynthia Dotson and could face the death penalty if convicted. Dotson was found stabbed to death in a burning mobile home nearly 25 years ago. Sherrill was not charged until 2005.
Sherrill is also accused of three other murders, but those are not an issue in this trial. Arthur Jackson Bostic, Linda Taylor, and Amy Bostic were killed in October of 1984.
DW has been unable to determine why Sherrill was charged with these murders, except that he knew the victims and police received undefined tips about his involvement.
January 26, 2009
In Moore County, Bobby Chavis has pleaded guilty and accepted a sentece of life without the possibility of parole for the 2006 murder of his wife. Audrey Chavis was attacked with a baseball bat as she slept, and then suffocated with a pillow.
The district attorney had sought death in the case, and only agreed to the plea after seven days of jury selection. The victim’s family did not want the death penalty.
January 16, 2009
In one of the last acts of the Bush Administration, federal prosecutors have announced that they will seek the death penalty against Demario James Atwater. Atwater is accused of killing UNC student body president Eve Carson.
January 16, 2009
Two recent op-eds in NC newspapers have called for an end to capital punishment. The first, in Greensboro’s News-Record, calls on elected officials to get in line with what juries are telling them – that life without parole is a more just punishment than death in all but the most exceptional cases.
The second piece, in Raleigh’s News and Observer, takes a historical look at capital punishment in North Carolina, concluding, “For decades, North Carolinians have tried to adapt the penalty to satisfy our desire for a forceful and effective response to crime that will not hurt our consciences. We have failed. We can rewrite this failure in blood, or we can give the death penalty, in the words of the late Raleigh minister W.W. Finlator, ‘a prompt and decent burial.’”
January 14, 2009
In Raleigh, lawmakers are considering a bill that would exempt the severely mentally ill from the death penalty. Recent United States Supreme Court decisions have exempted juveniles and the mentally retarded from execution because of their reduced ability to control their actions, assist in their defense, and appreciate why they are being executed. The proposed bill would extend the same protection to persons with debilitating mental illnesses because they have similar disabilities.
The bill allows for a pretrial determination of the defendant’s mental status. If he or she was found to be severely mentally ill, the death penalty would be taken off the table and the defendant would proceed to trial. Upon conviction, he or she would be sentenced to life in prison (not a psychiatric facility) without the possibility of parole. Advocates say that by culling the severely mentally ill from the pool of capital-eligible defendants in advance of trial, the State would save both time and money.
The bill would only protect persons with debilitating mental illnesses like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. The defendant would be required to show that he or she was suffering from severe mental illness or brain damage at the time of the crime. Persons with conditions like anxiety disorders or substance abuse problems would still be eligible for the death penalty.
A similar bill was proposed last year, and is available online here.
January 13, 2009
A June 1st trial date has been set for Myron Britt in Robeson County. Britt was previously tried for the murder of his wife in 2006, but the jury could not reach a verdict. The State alleged that Britt killed his wife to collect her insurance policy, but Britt’s attorneys maintained that the couple was happy and he had no reason to kill her. If convicted, Britt could be sentenced to death.
January 12, 2009
Indigent Defense Services, which oversees legal representation for all indigent defendants in North Carolina, has released a study about the cost of the death penalty at the trial level. The study is available online here.
The primary revelation of the study is that the cost of the death penalty has been exploded by DA charging decisions.
A person accused of intentional homicide can be charged with first degree murder, second degree murder or voluntary manslaughter, depending on the circumstances of the killing. As many as 88% of intentional homicides are charged as either first degree or undesignated murder. These cases cost, on average, $27,834 in defense spending. [The State does not release data on the cost of prosecuting such cases.] However, 83% of these cases are resolved with pleas or verdicts of second degree murder or less. Had they been charged as second degree murder from the beginning, each case would have cost approximately $1,931. When you consider that there are on average 869 intentional homicides in North Carolina every year, better charging decisions could save just shy of $20 million annually.
Another way DAs drive up costs is by proceeding capitally in roughly a third of all first degree murder cases. The death penalty is supposed to be reserved for the rare, egregious case. By seeking death in a first degree murder case, DAs magnify defense costs – tripling costs in cases that end in a plea, quintupling costs in cases that go to trial. Between 2002 and 2005, DAs sought death at some point in 464 cases. Had all of those cases proceeded non-capitally, the state of North Carolina would have saved over $21 million.
Remember that since 2001, the State has only obtained a death sentence in 3% of cases where it has been sought. More than 60% of cases in which the State initially sought the death penalty resulted in a conviction of second degree murder or less.
A few other findings:
- The average cost of a potentially capital case has not risen in the last several years. However, the number of open cases has grown significantly, increasing costs overall.
- While the media tends to focus on expensive, high-profile cases, half of potentially capital cases are resolved for less than $15,000 in defense expenditures (attorney and expert costs combined).
The study does not propose that the death penalty be abolished to save money. It simply suggests that IDS and district attorneys can work together to reduce the waste produced by reckless charging decisions. In these tough economic times, that’s not politics, that’s just good sense.
January 6, 2009
In a hearing at Fort Bragg this morning, the attorneys prosecuting and defending Master Sgt. Timothy Hennis argued over access to documents and information. The military is seeking two pages created by Hennis’ attorney in his previous civlian trials, while the defense is seeking contact information for the witnesses the State called in those trials. Hennis was once convicted and later acquitted in civilian court of the murders for which the Army is now seeking the death penalty.
Another hearing is scheduled for March 31. The court-martial will convene on July 7.
January 5, 2009
Tomorrow morning a military court at Fort Bragg will hear pretrial motions in the ongoing case of Master Sgt. Timothy Hennis.
In 1986, Hennis was sentenced to death in state court for a triple murder that occurred near Fort Bragg the year before. In 1989, Hennis was acquitted at a retrial. Tim Hennis returned to the Army, and served until his retirement in 2004. New evidence emerged in 2006, and the Army reactivated Hennis for the purpose of charging him with the murders in military court. Double jeopardy does not apply to the military. Hennis could again be sentenced to death if he is convicted by a military jury.
Past articles about Hennis are here and here.