NC Death Penalty Year in Review 2008

December 18, 2008

It has been an exceptional year for life in North Carolina.  No one was executed, and only one new person was added to death row (the lowest number since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1977).  This year, as many capital defendants were acquitted as were sentenced to death.  More death row inmates were exonerated than executed.  North Carolina should be proud.

Nationally, executions began again following the Supreme Court’s decision in Baze v. Rees, but lethal injection remains stalled in North Carolina due to litigation by inmates subject to the procedure as well as the doctors forced to participate in it.

Capital Trial Statistics

Life without parole – 9 (Kenneth Hartley, Charles Dickerson, Eric Oakes, Jakiem Wilson, James Stitt, Robert Windsor, Lisa Greene, Neil Sargeant, James Blue)

Sentences less than life -3 (Pliney Purser, Jonte McLaurin, John Chavis Ross)

Death -1 (James Ray Little)

Military capital trial acquittals – 1 (Alberto Martinez)

Post-Conviction Statistics

Executions – 0

Exonerations – 2 (Levon “Bo” Jones, Glen Edward Chapman)

Death row inmates getting new trials – 2 (John Conaway, William Moore)

Death row inmates getting new sentencing hearings – 1 (William Gray)

Otherwise removed from death row – 2 (Clinton Smith, Carlos Cannady)

Incompetent for execution – 1 (Guy LeGrande)

Deaths from natural causes – 3 (Gary Greene, Leroy McNeill, George Page)

If you would like to be part of making 2009 another Year of Life, please consider making a donation to NC-based groups like the Fair Trial Initiative.


Wow.

December 17, 2008

Of late, DW has refocused its efforts, blogging only about death penalty-related events in North Carolina.  But sometimes a story comes along that’s just impossible to ignore.  Grits for Breakfast reports, “Police in Albuquerque, N.M. have become so reliant on snitches to solve cases that when they couldn’t generate enough informants organically they began to advertise in the local paper.”

The ad?

“[SEEKING] PEOPLE THAT HANG OUT WITH CROOKS TO DO PART-TIME WORK.  MAKE SOME EXTRA CASH!  DRUG USE OK.  CRIMINAL RECORD?  NOT A PROBLEM.”

Would it have cost extra to add “truth-telling optional?”

Paid informants have been responsible for sending untold numbers of innocent people to prison, sometimes even to death row.  (Just ask Bo Jones and Jonathan Hoffman.)

The Albuquerque police are taking the documented unreliability of informants to a whole new level.  As noted in the original USA Today article, offering easy money in these tough economic times is especially likely to lead to false information.  The brazenness of the ad makes me wonder if this is even a concern for the APD.  And as Grits points out, since when is “drug use OK” from the perspective of law enforcement?

The ACLU has some thoughts on how to reform the informant system here.


New Sentencing Hearing for William Gray

June 26, 2008

In a rare move, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals (which handles cases from North and South Carolina, as well as Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia) granted relief to death row inmate Dr. William Gray [1] earlier this week. The Court said that Gray, who was sentenced to die for the 1992 murder of his wife in Lenoir County, should receive a new sentencing hearing because his lawyers failed to investigate and present considerable evidence that Gray was severely mentally ill.

Dr. Gray had been exhibiting bizarre behavior for months before he shot his wife. After he was arrested, he was kept in the state mental hospital for five weeks. Once Dr. Gray returned to the jail, he had to be kept in the juvenile cell block for his own safety. Everyone around him in the months before and after the murder noticed that Gray had made a precipitous decline into mental illness, but his attorneys – neither of whom had tried a capital case before – presented no such evidence to the jury. Now William Gray has a second chance.

Read the rest of this entry »


Jerry Conner Video Released

November 16, 2007

In the summer of 1990, Minh and Linda Rogers were shot to death while working at their family-owned grocery in rural Gates County, North Carolina. Some money was taken. Sixteen year-old Linda was raped. The next year, Jerry Wayne Conner was tried and sentenced to death for the murders. His sentence was overturned on appeal, but after a re-sentencing hearing in 1995, Mr. Conner was again sentenced to die. In May of 2006, Conner came within 36 hours of execution before the North Carolina Supreme Court intervened. The Court didn’t want Jerry Conner to be killed until he had the chance to apply modern DNA technology to the semen found on Linda Rogers’ body. Unfortunately, the semen sample was too degraded to produce conclusive results.

We may never know if Jerry Conner killed Minh and Linda Rogers seventeen years ago. What we do know is that if and when lethal injection returns to North Carolina, Conner will be among the first scheduled to die. With that in mind, his attorneys have released a video on YouTube highlighting another major issue in the case: juror misconduct.

A local news reporter who covered Mr. Conner’s first trial sat on his re-sentencing jury. The reporter/juror learned confidential facts about the case before, during, and after the first trial through her contacts with the Sheriff’s Department and others involved in the investigation of the murders. When questioned directly about communications with people involved in the case, she did not tell the court what she knew. Her deceptions denied Mr. Conner his right to be tried by an impartial jury.

More information about Jerry Conner’s case is available here, here, and here.

During this brief respite from executions, it is important to remember that there are still thousands of men and women out there awaiting their final day. Daily we are adding to the queue – men and women afflicted by mental illness, represented by incompetent lawyers, convicted based on the false testimony of jailhouse snitches and crooked police officers. While Ralph Baze has taken center stage to tell the nation about the constitutional perils of lethal injection, Jerry Conner is waiting in the wings with an equally important story to tell about the broken system used to decide who is sentenced to die in the first place.


Free Floyd Brown, Part II

August 16, 2007

Background

As discussed in a prior post, Floyd Brown, an innocent mentally retarded man, has been locked up for 14 years without a trial. He has been held at the state mental hospital since 1993 in connection with the murder of an Anson County woman. Until the Supreme Court banned the execution of the mentally retarded, he was facing a death sentence. Two days ago, his attorneys filed a petition that could finally win him his freedom.

I encourage everyone to read the entire petition here. The section on the severity of his mental retardation, especially in light of the detailed confession he is alleged to have given, is particularly moving. (Normally, I would encourage non-attorneys to skip the procedural section and get right to the juicy stuff, but even the chronology of events in this case is outrageous.)

New Information

The petition puts forth new information pointing to Mr. Brown’s innocence and blatant misconduct on the part of the Anson County Sheriff’s Department, including:

> Law enforcement officers conducted a search of Mr. Brown and his home prior to his arrest for which there is no documentation. No warrants were obtained and no reports were produced. The record contains a Consent to Search form signed by Mr. Brown on the day before law enforcement claims it first made contact with him. Mr. Brown’s sister observed him being taken from his home by law enforcement officers on that date.

> The victim had been assaulted during a home invasion two years prior to her death. The detectives who investigated the murder were the same detectives who investigated the assault. Despite similarities between the two crimes, the officers never attempted to determine the whereabouts of the men who had been convicted of the prior assault. Complete information about the assault has not yet been provided to defense counsel. The police had multiple other substantial leads they failed to follow up on.

> Law enforcement and prosecutors have failed to investigate or explain the fact that the victim died hours before the time stated in the fabricated confession allegedly taken from Mr. Brown. Records from the EMT who examined the body at the scene and a noted forensic pathologist indicate that the victim was dead for at least three hours before the statement says she was murdered.

Other interesting facts

> Law enforcement officers first spoke to Mr. Brown based on a tip that came from patrons of a liquor house. (For non-Southerners, this is a sort of illegal bar which serves liquor at all hours of the day and night, despite a person’s level of intoxication.) One witness indicated that a black male with a moustache, weighing approximately 150 pounds, told patrons of the liquor house that he knew about the murder. Mr. Brown has never had a moustache and weighed 120 pounds at the time of his arrest. The witness who allegedly identified Mr. Brown by name denies ever speaking to law enforcement, and there are no notes or official record of the alleged conversation.

> One of the detectives involved in the investigation was responsible for the preservation of the evidence in the murder, all of which has subsequently disappeared. This includes forensic evidence, preliminary testing of which indicated that Mr. Brown was not involved in the murder.

Where Things Stand

The petition concludes:

In this case, all of the elements for a perfect storm of injustice – a brutal murder in a small town with no suspect; corrupt cops who believed the ends justified the means; and a man with the mind of a little boy lacking both the knowledge and the means to defend himself – have converged over the life of Floyd Brown. As a result, Floyd has been confined to Dorothea Dix Hospital for the past 14 years because his mental retardation prevents him from ever becoming competent to stand trial.

This case illustrates that desperate men will do desperate things. Having no leads and under pressure to solve the case, the Anson County Sheriff’s Department and the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation turned to information from patrons and residents of a liquor house as justification for their pursuit of Floyd Brown. Then, when they could not find any evidence to link Floyd to the murder of Catherine Lynch, they conspired to create the best evidence they could: a fabricated confession….

For justice to be done in this case, Floyd Brown must be set free, he must be allowed to return to society and live in the group home awaiting him, and the charges that have plagued him for the past 14 years must be dismissed with prejudice.

(Procedural note: The current status of Mr. Brown’s case is that the charges against him have been dismissed with leave. However, he is being held in the state mental hospital under civil commitment laws. Should he ever become competent, Anson County will reinstate the charges and bring him to trial. In effect, he is still accused, and he is being held indefinitely. To dismiss the case with prejudice would mean that Mr. Brown would be able to return to his family, and that Anson County would be prevented from resurrecting these fraudulent charges again in the future.)

What You Can Do

Concerned citizens can contact the district attorney and ask that Mr. Brown’s case be dismissed with prejudice.

Honorable Michael Parker, DA
District Attorney’s Office
P.O. Box 761
Wadesboro, NC 28170

(704) 694-0129


Free Floyd Brown

August 2, 2007

Imagine you have been accused of a crime you didn’t commit. Now imagine that you can’t defend yourself because your IQ makes you the mental equivalent of a five or six-year-old child. You can’t tell time. You can’t spell your own name. But somehow, police say, you gave them a lengthy and detailed confession to the murder of an elderly woman. You are facing the death penalty.

Fast forward fourteen years. You’re still in jail. You haven’t gone to trial. Both of the detectives who accused you have been convicted of federal racketeering charges. All of the physical evidence against you – if there ever was any – has disappeared. It’s not clear that you will ever get your day in court. There is a very good chance you will die in a state mental facility because you are too retarded to stand trial for something you didn’t even do.

On the bright side, the Supreme Court has outlawed the execution of the mentally retarded.

This is the story of Floyd Brown. Mr. Brown was arrested for the 1993 murder of Katherine Lynch in Anson County. He was sent to Dorothea Dix, the state mental hospital in Raleigh, which has a special area for evaluating whether people are competent to stand trial. Mr. Brown is so severely impaired that the doctors said he wouldn’t be able to understand what was going on in the courtroom, or to help his attorneys defend him. When a person is found incompetent to stand trial, the job of the staff at Dix is to make them competent. This is usually accomplished through education. Inmates/patients attend classes where they learn to identify various people in the courtroom (the judge, the prosecutor, the defense attorney), what their roles are, and how to describe a defendant’s basic rights. Most schoolchildren could pass this test, but it took Floyd Brown a decade to parrot back enough information to satisfy doctors. When Mr. Brown was finally deemed competent to stand trial, the State got scared and offered him a plea to voluntary manslaughter. Brown would have gotten credit for the time he spent at Dix, and would not have had to concede guilt in accepting the sentence. (This is known as an Alford plea. The defendant says that he is factually innocent of the crime, but that it is nonetheless in his best interests to enter the plea.) The only problem was that Mr. Brown couldn’t understand what that meant. Back to competency school he went.

Floyd Brown’s nightmare began six days after the murder of Katherine Lynch. The police picked him up and took him to Katherine Lynch’s house – with blood still on the floor – and told him to hold a stick. It was the murder weapon. (Unfortunately for the State, the one of the only forensic tests ever conducted in the case shows that the bloody palm print found on the stick does not match Floyd Brown’s hand. The other shows that there was no blood on Mr. Brown’s clothing.) The next day, the police removed Mr. Brown from his day center for people with special needs and took him in for questioning. They had Mr. Brown sign a waiver of his rights – which he could neither read nor understand – and interrogated him without recording the interview. From this interrogation came the only piece of evidence tying Mr. Brown to the murder, his alleged confession.

The statement refers to time of day. Brown cannot tell time. The statement says that Lynch called Brown her favorite cousin, but they were not related and had never met. According to the statement, before the murder Brown and Lynch had been watching television together in her living room. There was no TV in Lynch’s living room. Although Brown cannot tell left from right, detectives claimed he told them he hit Lynch on her right arm. Brown – who did not learn to bathe until he was 15 and still has trouble grooming himself – allegedly knew enough to check Lynch’s heart rate and breathing after the attack. Brown identifies the town where his vocational center was located, but today, after 14 years of training at Dix, he doesn’t even know what state he’s in. The mentally retarded are easily coerced into confessing to things they didn’t do because they are eager to please, but it is virtually impossible for Floyd Brown to have given this statement at all.

The Anson County detective listed in Sheriff’s Department records as lead investigator denies ever having been involved in the case. The deputies who took the statement both pleaded guilty in 1998 to shaking down suspects for money in exchange for not pressing trumped-up criminal charges. State Bureau of Investigation agent David Ramsey refers to these officers as, “The worst I’ve ever seen…they were just as corrupt as they can be. I wouldn’t put anything past them.” An Anson County Sheriff’s deputy who worked on the case said that his colleagues were eager to close the case, so “they probably led Floyd to say what they wanted him to.” No one who has spent time with Mr. Brown, including psychiatrists trained to work with the mentally retarded, believes that he made this statement.

In 2003, after Mr. Brown was found competent to stand trial, his attorneys asked to see Ms. Lynch’s walking stick, the murder weapon. It was gone. Also gone was almost all the physical evidence in the case – Brown’s clothing, wooden planks from the floor of Lynch’s home, palm prints lifted from the scene, fingerprint cards, etc. Sometime in the decade since the murder, the evidence had been lost, misplaced, or destroyed. Upon learning of its absence, the Sheriff did nothing to look for it. Prosecutors tried to blame the loss on UPS, but court records show that the evidence was returned to the Sheriff’s Department from the lab, safe and sound. When asked by a reporter what happened to the murder weapon, one detective involved said, “I don’t know. If I did, I wouldn’t say it. It’s not your business what happened to that evidence. It’s nobody’s business what happened to that evidence.”

To the contrary. Putting aside the apology and compensation owed to Floyd Brown, District Attorney Michael Parker and Sheriff Tommy Allen owe the people of Anson County an explanation. Sheriff Allen won’t comment. Mr. Parker has said, “Lost or missing evidence seriously compromises the State’s ability to achieve true justice, but it does not affect a prosecutor’s desire to protect the public from dangerous people. In these cases, the prosecutor attempts to do substantial justice to avoid a greater injustice.” Apparently the irony is overwhelming to everyone but Parker. Katherine Lynch’s killer is still out there, and Anson County has done nothing to find him. Says Lynch’s neighbor, a pastor, “[Brown] got screwed because they didn’t have no suspect and no physical evidence to nail anyone. All these years later, we’d really like to know who did this to Miss Katherine.”

(Source article here. Video of Mr. Brown talking with a reporter here. Click on “Day 4″ at top left.)


Oprah, Can You Hear Me?

May 8, 2007

The strange case of Guy Tobias LeGrande goes on. In 1996, Guy LeGrande was sentenced to death in Stanly County for the murder of Ellen Munford. (Incidentally, the man who hired LeGrande and provided him with the murder weapon – Munford’s husband – was convicted only of second-degree murder.) LeGrande fired his court-appointed attorneys and was allowed to represent himself over their protestations that he was severely mentally ill.

The jury never heard evidence that LeGrande believed he was receiving signals from Dan Rather and Oprah Winfrey through the television. They did not know that he had long suffered from delusions and extreme mood swings. LeGrande represented himself while wearing a Superman t-shirt, and his ranting arguments drew comments even from the judge who’d found him competent. LeGrande challenged the jury to sentence him to death, telling them, “All you so-called good folks can kiss my natural black ass in the showroom window of Heilig-Myers” and “Pull the damn switch and shake that groove thing.” They obliged after 45 minutes of deliberation. After his conviction, LeGrande continued to represent himself, and failed to preserve any of the legal issues that might have won him relief in federal court.

Over the years, attempts have been made to intervene. Attorneys have visited LeGrande in hopes of helping him with appeals. LeGrande refused assistance, but told the lawyers that he could see people’s thoughts and desires, that he was expecting a settlement to his multi-billion dollar lawsuit against the State any day, and that he could see a circle of smoke around one lawyer’s head. Doctors have tried to evaluate Mr. LeGrande, some finding him incompetent, others finding him competent, but all agreeing that he is severely mentally ill. They noted hypomanic behaviors and grandiose delusions. LeGrande has a family history of mental illness – his sister has bipolar disorder, and his half-sister suffers from chronic paranoid schizophrenia.

Eventually, a federal court tired of the frivolous lawsuits LeGrande continually filed, and appointed counsel to represent him. By this time it was too late – federal courts can only consider issues that have previously been raised in state court, and LeGrande had failed to do so. Guy LeGrande was scheduled for execution in December of 2006. In late November, a judge declared a 60-day stay, asking three doctors to evaluate LeGrande and decide whether he was competent to be executed. The stay was extended due to difficulties in evaluating LeGrande. Thus far, LeGrande has refused to meet with the doctors, and until recently, their only opportunity to observe him has been to watch videotape – without audio – of LeGrande’s activities in his cell over a 30-day period.

Last week, the judge in the case sought further information through a hearing. LeGrande’s lawyers over the years, all of whom he refuses to acknowledge, testified about their interactions with him. One said that LeGrande does not believe he will be executed, instead he will be pardoned, given billions of dollars, and enjoy his first free meal with the Governor himself. It has been reported in the past that LeGrande can be seen marching around his cell for hours at a time, and that he anticipates living out the rest of his days on the beachfront property he will purchase with his settlement from the State. LeGrande has suggested that certain employees of the Department of Corrections have ESP, and has opened letters: “From the Constitutional and Civil Rights Office of the Director for the National Coalition of Black Secret Agents Enslaved at Central Prison.”

For its part, the State insisted that LeGrande is an intelligent man who took deliberate steps to avoid capture. (The State seems to confuse mental retardation with mental illness, and conflates competency to stand trial with competency to be executed.) Ellen Munford’s parents and children have been very vocal about their desire to see LeGrande executed.

The most interesting aspect of the hearing is that LeGrande agreed to be questioned by the judge. His statements have been described as “articulate, but rambling.” Although able to cite statutes by number, LeGrande made off references to Albert Einstein and Clarence Thomas. He refused to directly answer the judge’s questions about whether he believes he will be pardoned and other significant matters. He used profanity in court. Although LeGrande grasped that the purpose of the hearing was to examine the issue of his competency, he didn’t seem to think he was a necessary part of the process. He referred to himself as a “conscientious observer” and spent much of the hearing leaning back and swiveling in his chair.

Doctors say that LeGrande most likely suffers from one of the following: (1) Schizoaffective Disorder, Bipolar type, (2) Bipolar 1 Disorder, Manic with psychotic features, or (3) Delusional Disorder. All of these would affect Mr. LeGrande’s ability to understand the fact of his impending execution, and perhaps also to understand the real reason for it. At trial, of course, these disorders would have impaired his ability to work with counsel, much less represent himself, but that issue is moot now.

The United States Supreme Court recently heard the case of Scott Panetti, a schizophrenic Texas man allowed to represent himself at trial, with much the same result as Guy LeGrande. The Court is re-examining the standard for competency to be executed, and considering, in light of its decisions about the mentally retarded (Atkins) and juveniles (Roper), whether the execution of the mentally ill serves any legitimate purpose. This blog entry gives information on recent reform efforts in North Carolina. (That bill is still in committee.)

As for Guy LeGrande, the State has made it clear that they intend to execute him as soon as possible. If the court finds LeGrande competent, the State will set an execution date to be carried out when the lethal injection debate is resolved. LeGrande insists there is a method to his madness. (When asked about a time he claimed to see anvils falling from the sky, LeGrande said, “When I make these little conundrums, these riddles, I’m alluding to another situation.”) He says that if he is executed, it will not be because he chose to represent himself. “I didn’t fail, the law failed.” At least he’s right about one thing.


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