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.

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.

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.

Life Sentence for Joshua Stepp

September 13, 2011

Josh Stepp, an Iraq war veteran suffering from PTSD, has been spared the death penalty.  He will serve life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Comments from jurors here.

State Dragging its Feet on Racial Justice

September 12, 2011

The Racial Justice Act was passed in August of 2009.  As required by the statute, death row inmate Marcus Robinson filed his claim under the Act in August of 2010.  Now, two years out from the passage of the RJA and one year after Robinson’s petition, the State says it has not started to prepare its response and needs more time.

If the November hearing moves forward as planned, Judge Weeks will consider only the issue of whether prosecutors in Cumberland County and across the state of North Carolina removed people of color from the jury panel in an unacceptable manner.  Another judge in Forsyth County is examining a separate issue related to how the race of the defendant and the race of the victim impact decisions to seek and impose the death penalty.

The Racial Justice Act allows defendants to look beyond the narrow scope of their own cases to identify patterns of behavior over time.  In Robinson’s own case, prosecutors were three times more likely to excuse qualified jurors of color than qualified white jurors.  This might be viewed as some kind of fluke if it were not also true that qualified black jurors were two and a half times more likely to be excluded from capital juries when every Cumberland County death penalty case is considered.  Even looking at every death-sentenced case statewide over the last 20 years, there is still a clear pattern – blacks are eliminated from juries at twice the rate of whites.  A sophisticated statistical study has shown that the probability of this disparity occurring in the absence of racial considerations is less than 0.0001.

Cumberland County prosecutors have had this information for a year, and have known it was coming for longer than that.  At the hearing, they asked for another six months (at least) to review Robinson’s evidence and come up with some of their own.  Some have speculated that the delay is intentional; that prosecutors want to push the hearing back until Judge Weeks retires or the RJA is repealed in the legislature, whichever comes first.  To be sure, there are other potential explanations, but the end result is the same: justice, whatever that may be, will have to wait.

Whatever your position on the Racial Justice Act, the death penalty, or Marcus Robinson, I think we can all agree that it is time to take the next step.

Local reporting here and here.  ThinkProgress weighs in here.

Note: A “qualified juror” is someone who meets the requirements to serve on a capital jury, which includes a willingness to impose the death penalty.  Thus, arguments to the effect that ‘black people just don’t support the death penalty’ do not explain the disparity.

Stepp Jury Deliberates

September 7, 2011

In Wake County, a jury is deciding whether to convict Joshua Stepp of first or second-degree murder in the 2009 killing of his stepdaughter.  Stepp admits to causing the girl’s death, but says that his mental state was so clouded by PTSD and intoxication that he acted without intending to kill.  If Stepp is convicted of first-degree murder, the jury will then hear additional evidence before deciding what sentence to impose.

Follow-Up Stories on Stewart Verdict

September 7, 2011

One local writer answers the question, “Why Bother With a Trial, Anyway?”

Also: DA Satisfied with Stewart Sentence

And: Stewart Verdict Frees a Community to Heal

Stewart was convicted of eight counts of second-degree murder and will spend the rest of his life in prison.  Many expected that he would be sentenced to death.  The jury should be commended for having the strength to follow their conscience and the law in such a highly publicized case.

Stewart Convicted of Second-Degree Murder

September 3, 2011

Robert Stewart has been convicted of eight counts of second-degree murder.  He will not face the death penalty, but will spend the rest of his life in prison.

Stewart Jury to Hear Closing Arguments Thursday, Deliberate Friday

August 30, 2011

Robert Stewart told a medical professional that he was thinking about killing himself and others.  He was sent home without treatment.  Two days later, Stewart opened fire in a nursing home.  He was suffering from severe mental illness and under the influence of medications including Ambien at the time of the shooting.

Soon a jury will decide whether Stewart was so incapacitated that he should be found guilty of a crime less than first-degree murder.  Final arguments will be heard Thursday and the jury will start deliberations on Friday.  The judge has ordered that the jury will continue deliberations on Saturday and even Monday if necessary, despite the Labor Day holiday.

Local reporting is here.

Stepp Trial Underway in Wake County

August 22, 2011

Opening arguments were heard this morning in the trial of Joshua Stepp, a former Army infantryman who is accused of killing his ten month-old stepdaughter.  Prosecutors also allege that a sexual assault took place.

Stepp admits to causing the girl’s death, but asserts that he is not guilty of first-degree murder because he did not form the specific intent to kill and because no sexual assault occurred.  [You can read North Carolina's definition of first-degree murder here.]  Stepp intends to testify and present evidence of how substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder caused him to lose control.


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