Hembree Sentenced to Death; Two Robinson Trials Continue

November 21, 2011

In Gaston County, Danny Hembree was sentenced to death for the murder of Heather Catterton.  Although the victim’s family supported the death penalty, her father recognized, “This was a no-win situation. They’ve lost a son. We’ve lost a daughter.”

The Robeson County trial of Larry Robinson continues without media coverage.

The State is presenting evidence in the Stanly County trial of William Robinson.  Robinson is accused of shooting a man during a 2006 robbery.


State Moves to Recuse Black Judge from Racial Justice Act Motions

November 10, 2011

In Cumberland County today, prosecutors are arguing that Gregory Weeks, the Senior Resident Superior Court Judge for the county, should be disqualified from hearing claims under the Racial Justice Act.  Weeks is a 23-year veteran of the bench – who also happens to be African-American.  Of course, prosecutors aren’t saying that they want Weeks off the case because he’s black.  They claim that Weeks should recuse himself because he has presided over some of the death penalty trials in question, and therefore might be a witness.  If this were the State’s true motivation, it seems that they would also have moved to recuse Judge William Wood, who is presiding over Racial Justice Act claims in Forsyth County.  Wood, who is white, has also been the trial judge in a death penalty case affected by the RJA.

Duke University law professor Jim Coleman says, “It looks like they’re trying to get rid of an African-American judge and have the case heard by someone who likely would not be African-American…They’re accused of manipulating the jury on the basis of race. It’s ironic that they would do something that looks like they’re trying to … manipulate the judge who would hear the case [for the same reason].”

The State made its motion on the eve of the first real test of the RJA, a hearing that was to take place before Judge Weeks on November 14th.  That hearing may now be delayed.  The State’s motion is highly unusual and perhaps unprecedented.  Attorney Ken Rose says, “I’ve been doing this 30 years. I’ve never seen a judge recused for that reason.”  Judge Weeks has retained his own lawyer, Fred Webb, to argue that it is inappropriate to call a judge as a witness under these circumstances.

Media here, here, here, and here.


Second-Degree Murder for Gross, Life Without Parole for Mills

November 7, 2011

Two death penalty trials noted in DW’s last post have resolved with a sentence less than death.

In Buncombe County, a jury rejected first-degree murder and instead found Brandon Lee Gross guilty of second-degree murder.  He will be sentenced to a term of years.  Still no word from the local paper or TV stations.

In Alamance County, Dennis Alan Mills pleaded guilty and accepted a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.  Prosecutors alleged that Mills shot two men to death following an argument over a sandwich.  Mills previously served time for the shooting death of his uncle.


NC Capital Trial Update 11-1-11

November 1, 2011

Six death penalty trials started in North Carolina over the last few weeks.

Larry Robinson (Robeson) and Brandon Gross (Buncombe) – Progress unknown.

The guilt-or-innocence phase is wrapping up in the Gaston County trial of Danny Hembree.  Prosecutors allege that Hembree strangled Heather Catterton in 2009, while defense attorneys say Catterton died of a drug overdose.

In Alamance County, efforts were underway to pick a jury for the sentencing phase of Dennis Mills‘ trial when Mills moved to withdraw his guilty plea for two 2010 shootings.

The Guilford County trial of Isaam Chaplin came to an abrupt halt when the prosecution suddenly located what they believe to be the murder weapon.  A gun seized by police in another county came up as a “hit” in a police database, prompting the judge to delay the trial indefinitely while both sides examine the new evidence.

Jury selection has just gotten underway in the Stanly County trial of William Robinson.  Robinson is accused of a 2006 robbery-murder in Albemarle.


Executions – November 2011

November 1, 2011

9 – Henry Skinner (TX)

10 – Anthony Juniper (VA)

15 – Oba Chandler (FL)

15 – Reginald Brooks (OH)

16 – Guadalupe Esparza (TX)

18 – Paul Rhoades (ID)


Jury Selection Underway in Capital Trials

October 14, 2011

In Gaston County, the jury selection process is nearly complete in the trial of Danny Hembree.  Eleven jurors have been seated; one regular juror and three alternates still need to be selected.

Things are just getting underway in the Alamance County trial of Dennis Mills; one juror has been seated.

There is no news on the Robeson County trial of Larry Robinson.


NC Supreme Court Rules, Lethal Injection Battle Continues

October 10, 2011

On Friday, the North Carolina Supreme Court issued a ruling in the ongoing litigation over lethal injection in the Tarheel State.  (Opinion available here.)  To be clear, last week’s decision did not open the floodgates for executions to resume in North Carolina.  The Court simply ruled that death-sentenced inmates cannot file a lawsuit in administrative court challenging the Council of State’s decision to approve the lethal injection protocol – inmates remain free to challenge the Council’s actions in other types of courts.

North Carolina is unique in that it requires the method of execution to first be mapped out by the Warden of Central Prison and then green-lighted by the Council of State, a group of executive branch elected officials. The issue in this case arose when the Council refused to hear from representatives for the inmates before approving the lethal injection protocol.  The inmates alleged that in doing do, the Council did not follow proper procedure under the Administrative Procedure Act.

The Court’s decision here turned on whether the Council of State is subject to the APA.  The Supreme Court ruled that because of the Council’s unique position in state government, the APA cannot be applied when the Council reviews a lethal injection protocol.

Although it ruled that the condemned have no right to contribute to the Council of State’s decision-making process, the  Court specifically noted that the inmates’ other concerns about the protocol could be addressed by state and federal courts.  What remains to be decided is the core issue of whether the lethal injection protocol in North Carolina complies with laws regarding cruel and unusual punishment.

As a practical matter, even if the protocol were to be approved by the courts, actually executing someone would require a drug of which there is a worldwide shortage at the moment. (More on that here and here.)  The Court’s decision may have closed the door on administrative remedies, but it has not reopened the door to the execution chamber.


Capital Trial Update 10-4-11

October 4, 2011

Larry Robinson is on trial for a double homicide in Robeson County, but DW has been unable to find anything recent in the media.

Jury selection is also underway for the trial of Danny Hembree in Gaston County.

Both Robinson and Hembree could face the death penalty if convicted.


Executions – October 2011

October 1, 2011

4 – John Henretta (TN – stayed)

5 – Marcus Johnson (GA)

18 – Joseph Murphy (OH – commuted)

20 – Christopher Johnson (AL)

25 – H.R. Hester (TN – stayed)

27 – Frank Garcia (TX)


Will Georgia Execute An Innocent Man?

September 16, 2011

DeathWatch does not often weigh in on executions taking place outside of North Carolina, but Georgia’s Troy Davis presents a special situation.

Winston-Salem attorney Mark Rabil describes the case:

It took a jury in Savannah, Ga., only a few hours to convict Troy Davis of the 1989 shooting of police Officer Mark McPhail, and only a few more hours to sentence Davis to death. The case against Davis was based solely upon the testimony of so-called eyewitnesses; no physical evidence exists. Alarmingly, seven of those nine have since recanted their original testimony, stating that they were wrong or lied about Troy Davis’ guilt in the face of intense coercion by law enforcement. Davis has always maintained his innocence. The police focused on Troy Davis because their first suspect, Redd Coles, told them Davis was the killer. Five new witnesses say that Coles was the one who shot McPhail. Witnesses saw Coles harassing a homeless man, shoot the police officer who tried to intervene, and then hide the gun. Coles himself admitted to fighting with the homeless man but fingered Troy Davis as the shooter of McPhail.

You can learn more about Troy Davis here and here.  If you are so inclined, you can sign this petition seeking clemency for Mr. Davis.  His execution is scheduled for September 21st.

For those who are not sure Mr. Davis is innocent but are also unsure of his guilt, know that clemency means Mr. Davis will not go free – he will be re-sentenced to life in prison.  There should not be death where there is doubt.


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