Mecklenburg County prosecutors have announced their intent to seek the death penalty against Scott Davis, who is accused of killing two people and wounding a third in a 2008 shooting. The victims were Davis’ girlfriend, Gabrielle Kinard, and her son Anjelo.
After deliberating for less than three hours, a Mecklenberg County jury has sentenced Michael Wayne Sherrill to death. It is the first new death sentence of 2009, and the first time a Charlotte jury has sent someone to death row in almost a decade.
Sherrill was convicted of the 1984 rape and murder of Cynthia Dotson. Sherrill was not arrested until a DNA match was made in 2004.
Michael Wayne Sherrill, having been convicted of first-degree murder, will soon learn whether he will be sentenced to death for the crime. Sherrill was convicted this week of raping and murdering Cynthia Dotson in 1984. He was not arrested until 2005.
Pleading for his life, Sherrill’s attorneys, Deke Falls and Bill Causey, presented evidence that Sherrill is a changed man. Although he was accused of several crimes in 1984, he was addicted to drugs at the time. Sherrill has been clean since the early 1990′s, and has remained employed and on the right side of the law. His family asked the jury for mercy.
Jurors will begin deliberating Friday.
Guilford County prosecutors have announced their intention to seek the death penalty against Isaam Mattay Chaplin for a 2008 murder. Chaplin is accused of shooting Juan Estaban Salado, a Brinks Security truck driver who had just picked up a deposit from a Greensboro clothing store.
In Charlotte, a jury is deciding whether Michael Wayne Sherrill is guilty of the 1984 rape and murder of Cynthia Dotson. Sherrill was not arrested until 2005. Prosecutors say that the presence of Sherrill’s DNA under Dotson’s fingernails proves that he is the killer. Defense attorneys say that the DNA could have gotten there when Sherrill was at Dotson’s home earlier in the day. They add that there is no physical evidence that Dotson was raped.
If Sherrill is found guilty, he will be sentenced to either life without parole or the death penalty.
After spending over three years in jail facing capital murder charges, James Johnson walked out of a Wilson County courtroom yesterday a free man. Johnson entered an Alford plea (meaning that he did not admit his guilt, but conceded that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict him) to mispirision of a felony (basically, failing to report a crime to the police immediately). Mispirision carries a sentence of 15 months, less than half the time Johnson already served.
Johnson had faced the death penalty for the 2004 rape and murder of Brittany Willis. Johnson led police to the real killer, Kenneth Meeks. As payback, Meeks claimed that Johnson participated in the crime. There was no physical evidence to show that Johnson raped or murdered Willis, and Meeks later admitted that he acted alone. Johnson did help Meeks clean a vehicle used in the crime, but says that he did so under duress. Johnson reported all of this to the police a few days later.
The victim’s father said, “We are satisfied with what happened here today. We are just ready to move forward and find some closure.”
A bill was introduced in the North Carolina General Assembly yesterday that would ban the execution of persons with severe mental illness and other mental disabilities. (Read the bill here.) The Assembly passed a similar bill in 2001 to exempt mentally retarded individuals from the death penalty.
In brief, the bill provides that if a person suffers from a severe mental disability at the time of the crime, he or she will not be subject to the death penalty. If such a defendant was convicted of first-degree murder, he or she would be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
It is important to note that the bill applies only to severe mental illness or disability. Mild conditions, like low-grade anxiety or attention deficit disorder would not qualify. The language of the bill also declines protection to persons whose mental disabilities are solely the result of drug or alcohol abuse. The bill defines severe mental disability as one that impairs a person’s ability to:
- Appreciate the nature, consequences, or wrongfulness of the person’s conduct;
- Exercise rational judgment in relation to conduct; or
- Conform the person’s conduct to the requirements of the law.
The report of the joint committee of state senators and representatives who met last month to discuss the issue is available here. Over the course of several days, the committee heard testimony and asked questions of several witnesses, including a judge, two psychiatrists, and an advocate for the mentally ill.
On January 12th, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a Tennessee case called Harbison v. Bell. The issue is whether federal courts are required to pay for lawyers in state clemency proceedings. If Harbison loses, it could have disastrous consequences for justice and fairness in North Carolina. It could also present our new governor, Beverly Perdue, with one of the greatest challenges of her tenure.
Clemency means “disposition to show forbearance, compassion, or forgiveness in judging or punishing; leniency; mercy.” In a death penalty case, clemency refers to the final stage before an inmate is executed. Both sides present evidence to the governor or another executive authority, who then decides whether the execution will proceed. Clemency is important because it is the last chance to prevent the execution of an innocent person or someone who for another reason should not have been sentenced to death.
In North Carolina, as in many states, the plea is made by the inmate’s lawyers directly to the governor and/or members of her staff. The governor has the opportunity to learn information that the jury didn’t know, and which might have affected their decision about the defendant’s guilt or the appropriate sentence for the crime. If the governor decides to grant clemency, the inmate’s sentence is commuted to life without the possibility of parole. If not, he is executed. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, a federal court, appoints and pays attorneys to prepare the clemency presentation. There is no state funding for clemency.
Two former North Carolina governors, Jim Hunt (D) and Jim Martin (R), filed a “friends of the court” brief with the Supreme Court in support of the inmate’s position in Harbison. This kind of brief is an opportunity for someone who is not a party in a lawsuit, but has a strong interest in its outcome, to inform the Court of their perspective and assist them in deciding the case.
Hunt and Martin are two of eleven current and former governors who joined in the brief. Each of the eleven has served as governor of an active death penalty state, and has been called upon to decide whether an inmate should live or die. The Governors urged the Court to allow federal funding of counsel in clemency proceedings, noting that the assistance of defense attorneys is essential to them in making this weighty decision.
While every state has its own method of determining who should receive clemency, the Governors assert that all of the models assume a full exploration of the issues. To fulfill his or her responsibility to promote fairness, accuracy, and public confidence in the system, a governor must closely examine both the facts related to the inmate’s guilt and those related to the inmate’s deservingness of a death sentence. In addition to examining issues related to guilt, a Governor may be called upon to consider issues like mental illness, the effect of race on sentencing, and the inmate’s capacity for remorse and redemption.
The Governors’ brief profiled several cases, giving examples of situations in which clemency was deemed appropriate. In referencing the case of Earl Washington, Jr. of Virginia, the Governors acknowledged that the appeals process is not 100% guaranteed to prevent the execution of an innocent person. The brief also described the North Carolina case of Anson Avery Maynard. In Maynard’s case, it was unclear whether or not he was the person who pulled the trigger. Having some doubt about Maynard’s guilt and the degree of his culpability, Governor Martin granted him clemency.
Clemency is also important in cases where the inmate’s guilt is not in question. For example, when Governor Mike Easley granted clemency to Robert Bacon, Jr. in 2001, many believed it was because the Governor was concerned that Bacon was sentenced to death because of racial bias. In other states, clemency has been granted for a variety of reasons, including serious mental illness, remorse and rehabilitation, disproportionate sentencing as compared to a co-defendant, poor representation by trial counsel, and even pleas for mercy from the victim’s family.
What It Means for North Carolina
The Court’s decision in Harbison v. Bell could coincide with the end of the moratorium on executions in North Carolina. If Harbison loses, Governor Perdue might find herself confronted with an unprecedented number of clemency decisions to make just as all of those inmates have lost their attorneys.
Inmates have been represented by counsel in every clemency hearing in the modern era. It would be a radical departure from precedent for Perdue to allow inmates to represent themselves, or to refuse them any representation at all. Were the Governor to choose this route, it would surely lead to further litigation and delay. Without federal assistance, it is more likely that Perdue will find herself trying to scrape up additional state funding for an already cash-strapped indigent defense system to take on these new cases.
Whatever the Court decides, it is important that Gov. Perdue embraces what Gov. Hunt and Gov. Martin have written about the importance of the clemency process. Every inquiry should be broad in scope; taking into account not only guilt or innocence, but also matters related to culpability, sentencing, and the overall fairness of the death penalty. The Governors’ brief mentions a few considerations – mental illness, possible innocence, race, and remorse – but there are many more. Governors must familiarize themselves with both the court file and information outside the record. The process of receiving, reviewing, considering, and exploring all of this evidence is necessarily fact and resource-intensive, requiring the governor to delve into a wide range of issues. As the brief concludes, “Only through this kind of process can Governors fulfill their responsibility to make capital clemency decisions that are as fair and accurate as possible.”
Governor Martin and his staff spent days talking to witnesses, reviewing evidence, and deciding whether to grant clemency to Anson Maynard. Given the volume of cases she will be confronted with, it may not be possible for Gov. Perdue to dedicate a week to each petition, but she can still be guided by her predecessors’ call to approach clemency hearings with the utmost seriousness and dedication to fairness. When for whatever reason the courts have failed to weed out the innocent and those otherwise undeserving of death, it falls to the governor to have the courage and integrity to ensure that this last safeguard against wrongful execution functions as it should.
Michael Eric Maske was sentenced to life without parole yesterday in the same Winston-Salem courthouse where he had been sentenced to death seven years ago.
Maske was sent to death row for the 2001 murder of Geneva Yarbrough. Two years later, the state Supreme Court vacated Maske’s death sentence and sent the case back for a new sentencing hearing because of errors made by the trial judge. The prosecutor and the victim’s family decided not to seek death again.
During his incarceration, Maske has made efforts to better himself. He obtained a GED and became a leader in the prison’s drug and alcohol rehabilitation groups. Maske has also participated in a program geared towards keeping teenagers out of trouble. He has expressed remorse for the killing, and gratefulness that his life has been spared.
Dennis Shaw, who had faced the death penalty for a 2006 homicide, pleaded guilty this week to second-degree murder. Rhonda Renee Barnes was beaten, burned with acid, and left on the floor of her Clayton home. Prosecutors took death off the table when they were unable to prove that the murder was premeditated. Shaw, who had no prior history of violence, was sentenced to 18 years in prison.