Murder Defendant Denied Counsel

May 21, 2008

News Update 05.21.08

North Carolina

In a highly unusual turn of events, the Charlotte man accused of killing a state insurance investigator who was conducting an audit of his business has been denied the assistance of a public defender. According to Judge Bill Costagny, Michael Arthur Howell makes too much money to be entitled to assistance in hiring a lawyer. Howell apparently makes over $70,000 a year, but his expenses are greater than his income. Furthermore, the cost of a proper first-degree murder defense (not to mention a capital trial) far exceeds what almost any individual short of O.J. Simpson is capable of paying out of pocket. If the case goes capital, Howell’s savings will quickly be depleted and he will eventually be appointed a public defender. By then we will be several months down the line, the crime scene may have changed, critical witnesses or evidence might have disappeared. Rather than saving taxpayers money, perhaps the only thing Judge Costagny will have accomplished is giving Howell a built-in issue for appeal.

Meanwhile, the folks at NC Policy Watch are always good for a laugh:

Stop them!


Relatedly, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has this reflection on Georgia’s rush to the death chamber, which is particularly disturbing in light of the near-collapse of the state’s public defender system.

Earl Wesley Berry is scheduled to be executed in Mississippi tonight. His lawyers have filed a petition with the Supreme Court, arguing that in light of the court’s ban on the execution of the mentally retarded in Atkins v. Virginia, Berry cannot be executed until he has received a proper hearing on the issue.

Amnesty International discusses the pending execution of Percy Levar Walton, a severely mentally ill man in Virginia. You can learn more about Mr. Walton’s case here. Walton is slated to become the 100th person executed in Virginia in the modern era.

Stitt Sentenced to Life Without Parole

May 16, 2008

News Update 05.16.08

North Carolina

A Cumberland County jury has voted to spare the life of convicted double-murderer James Stitt. Stitt killed his housemate, a 21-year-old soldier, and the soldier’s 16-year-old girlfriend, at their home in 2005. He then took the victim’s car and other property and drove to Brooklyn, New York, where he sold some items and disposed of the gun before being arrested three days later. Stitt will serve life without the possibility of parole for the murder of the girl, as well as 22 to 27 years for the robbery and murder of the soldier.

In Raleigh, lawmakers, legal scholars, lawyers, journalists, filmmakers, and religious leaders came together to encourage others to take a closer look at capital punishment. Clips from the film “At the Death House Door” (about Texas death row chaplain Carroll Pickett) were shown as Glen Chapman‘s attorney discussed his recent exoneration and Representative Rick Glazier promoted the Racial Justice Act, which is before the General Assembly this session.

Meanwhile in the western part of the state, former Buncombe County sheriff Bobby Lee Medford was found guilty of 11 counts of extortion, money laundering, and illegal gambling. Madison County deputy Randy Edgar Mathis resigned this week after being accused of planting marijuana on a woman to cover up the fact that he had stolen over $300 from her during a search.


Amnesty International reports on the upcoming execution of Mississippi’s Earl Wesley Berry.

Capital Defense Weekly notes that two other executions are scheduled for this month, Samuel Crowe in Georgia and Kevin Green in Virginia.

Death Row Exoneree Bo Jones Speaks

May 6, 2008

News Update 05.06.08

North Carolina

Levon JonesLevon “Bo” Jones, recently released after serving over a decade for a murder he did not commit, held a press conference yesterday in Raleigh. Jones’ attorneys spoke first. Ernest “Buddy” Conner told those gathered how the police failed to dust for fingerprints at the scene and eventually lost what little physical evidence they gathered. He also spoke of the State’s star witness, Lovely Lorden, who unbeknownst to Jones’ trial attorneys was a paid, professional snitch who changed her story several times before trial. Conner noted that this injustice could have been corrected years earlier had North Carolina state courts bothered to consider Jones’ appeals.

Cassy Stubbs noted that Mr. Jones came within weeks of execution in 1997, his life saved only after attorneys Ken Rose and Mark Kleinschmidt intervened and rescued the case from counsel who missed a critical filing deadline. Jones is the third person exonerated in North Carolina in six months, Stubbs said, and in every case proof of innocence was withheld from the defense. Paid informants like Lovely Lorden are the leading cause of wrongful convictions.

Attorney Brian Stull added that Jones’ life was nearly ended because he lost the lottery of assigned counsel that often puts overworked, underfunded, and unprepared lawyers in charge of capital cases. Stull recognized that North Carolina has made great improvements in the last decade, but noted that many on death row – like Jones – were put there before the reforms were implemented. Studies show that a defendant is three times more likely to be sentenced to death if his victim was white. Where the defendant is black and the victim is white, as in Jones’ case, death is even more likely. The police could have investigated another suspect, George Overton, who owed the victim money, went to the victim’s house at least twice that night, lied to police about his activities, and fled the county the next day. But Overton was white. Stull suggested that cases like Jones’ illustrate the importance of passing the Racial Justice Act, which is before the state legislature this session.

Jones spoke only briefly, saying, “”From the day I was locked up, August 14, 1992, I said I was innocent, until this day…I’ve always been innocent. I hope you all believe the same.” In response to questions from the audience, Jones and his attorneys said that they hope there will be consequences for those responsible for putting him on death row, including the DA who prosecuted him despite evidence of his innocence, the attorneys who failed to seek out that evidence, and the lying witness on whose testimony his conviction was based. This befuddled District Attorney Dewey Hudson, who seeing nothing wrong with robbing a man of over a decade of his life responded, “I did my job…The guy’s won. What’s all this bashing Dewey Hudson about? I’ve done nothing wrong.”

(Photo source. See also reporting from The Progressive Pulse.)


Cuban President Raul Castro commuted nearly all of that nation’s death sentences to terms of 30 years to life. He declared, “This decision was not undertaken because of pressure, but as a sovereign act in line with the humanitarian and ethical conduct that has characterized the Cuban revolution from the start.”

In Virginia, lawyers for Christopher Scott Emmett have appealed to the US Supreme Court, arguing that the Virginia lethal injection protocol is “unique and uniquely dangerous…far more dangerous” than the protocol approved in Baze. The State’s response is here.

Meanwhile in Georgia, a federal judge has found that state’s lethal injection protocol to be constitutional. After being denied clemency by the governor and the Board of Pardons and Paroles, William Earl Lynd is scheduled to be executed at 7 PM tonight.

Execution dates have also been set for Mississippi’s Earl Wesley Berry, Texas’ Jose Medellin, and a number of other inmates.

In Missouri, a new study reveals that race and geography play a significant role in capital sentencing.

After a vicious hacking, DPIC (a wee little non-profit organization) is having to shell out big bucks to beef up security for their site. Pitch in a few duckets to help here.

North Carolina Reaction to Baze

April 21, 2008

News Update 04.21.08

North Carolina

The US Supreme Court’s decision last week in Baze v. Rees does not mean that executions will resume immediately here in North Carolina. There are two state-based cases that must be resolved – first, a suit by five inmates who allege that the Council of State acted improperly in approving a new lethal injection protocol, and second, a suit by the Department of Correction against the North Carolina Medical Board, which sought to sanction doctors who participated in executions.

To be sure, courts will be asked to consider whether the differences between the Kentucky and North Carolina protocols are constitutionally significant. The majority opinion spent a good bit of energy applauding Kentucky safeguards that are absent here in the Tarheel State, for example that someone is present in the execution chamber to directly monitor the inmate and his IVs. The BIS monitor briefly reared its ugly head in the majority opinion, only to be quickly dismissed as lacking in scientific and medical support as a means of determining unconsciousness. Wonder what the Council of State will have to say about that. Perhaps Justice Alito’s concurring opinion with regard to forcing doctor participation in lethal injection will have some role to play in the Medical Board case.

The Charlotte Observer urges the State not to rush back to the death chamber until reforms to prevent wrongful convictions and the execution of innocents have been implemented. The News and Observer takes things a step further.


Blog coverage of the Court’s ruling in Baze v. Rees:

I also note SCOTUSBlog’s follow-up series, which includes a conservative perspective and a liberal perspective on the Baze opinion, and this New York Times piece on Justice Stevens’ conversion to death penalty opponent.

Now that Baze has been decided, executions are sure to begin again in some states. Virginia has the earliest scheduled execution at the moment – Kevin Green on May 27th. New litigation has been filed in Mississippi, arguing that the safeguards applauded by the Court in Kentucky are absent from the Mississippi protocol, and therefore the execution of Earl Wesley Berry cannot proceed under Baze. Meanwhile, Florida has filed a motion to vacate the stay of execution granted to Mark Dean Schwab because it believes its protocol “more than satisf[ies]” the requirements of Baze. This morning, the Supreme Court lifted a number of stays and denied cert in several other cases.

On the same day it announced its ruling in Baze, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Kennedy v. Louisiana, which challenges the implementation of the death penalty for crimes other than murder, in this case, child rape. Reporting from Amnesty International (re: whether executing their attackers is in the best interests of children) and SCOTUSBlog (re: summary of the arguments and insight into the Justices’ likely opinions). Compilation of media coverage by StandDown. You can read the transcript of the argument here.

Earl Berry and the West Memphis Three

October 31, 2007

News Update 10.31.07

North Carolina

Juan Melendez, who spent 18 years on Florida’s death row for a crime he did not commit, spoke to UNC-Chapel Hill students last night about his experiences. The lecture was just one of over two dozen similar events planned across the state.

John Holdridge of the NC-based ACLU Capital Punishment Project suggests that we use this time without executions to consider whether capital punishment is really necessary. If nothing else, he says, at least we will know that no innocent people will be executed between now and next spring.


Earl Wesley Berry was scheduled to be executed in Mississippi last night. Six o’clock, the scheduled hour of his death, came and went with no word in the media about whether the Supreme Court would stay the execution. Eventually we learned that the Court issued an order staying the execution just 15 minutes before the injections were to begin. Berry had eaten his last meal and said goodbye to his family, but had not yet been taken to the execution chamber. SCOTUS again declined to declare an official moratorium, meaning that inmates and the governments seeking to kill them will continue to go through this process indefinitely. Given that Berry had the weakest argument for a stay of all those with executions presently scheduled, the Court’s decision to grant him temporary reprieve is taken by many as a signal that SCOTUS will not allow other executions to go forward. As for Berry, his stay will last only until the Court has had an opportunity to review his recently-filed petition for certiorari. (See also CDW)

The New York Times has reported shocking – but perhaps not surprising – new evidence that the West Memphis 3, convicted of killing three 8-year-old boys, are in fact innocent. Damien Echols, the only defendant over the age of 18, sits on Arkansas’ death row. New evidence shows that there was no DNA from any of the West Memphis 3 at the crime scene – but there was DNA from one of the boys’ stepfathers, found in the shoelace used to bind another boy. The stepfather of another victim has a history of violence and has behaved strangely since the killings, including providing documentary filmmakers with a bloodstained knife. The only evidence against the West Memphis 3 was a statement given by one of them, mildly mentally retarded and addicted to drugs, who offered an explanation when the reward offered reached $30,000. More here.

Death Row Exonerees Tour NC

October 29, 2007

News Update 10.29.07

North Carolina

People of Faith Against the Death Penalty is hosting a tour of death row exonerees which will be making stops in Chapel Hill, Davidson, Durham, Greenville, Wilmington, Greensboro, Raleigh, Carrboro, Hickory, and Jacksonville over the next few days. Speakers include Ray Krone, Jay Smith, and Greg Wilhoit. For more information contact organizer Amanda Lattanzio at 919-933-7567 or


The Fifth Circuit (which handles federal appeals from Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas) has once again stolen the Supreme Court’s lunch money. In refusing to grant a stay of execution for Earl Wesley Berry, the 5th stomped its foot and declared that SCOTUS can’t tell it what to do. Advocates on both sides hope that SCOTUS will stand up to the bully and hold on to its PB&J. (That is, we hope that the Supreme Court will seize this opportunity to clarify whether its cert grant in Baze was intended to stay all executions until the lethal injection question has been decided.) (c/o CDW, SCOTUSblog, and SLAP)

The full Eleventh Circuit (which handles federal appeals from Alabama, Florida, and Georgia) will hear arguments on the stay of execution for Daniel Lee Siebert. Although the decision to rehear the case en banc nullified the order issued by a three-judge panel of the Court and vacated the stay issued by that panel, the Court immediately issued another stay of execution, pending the as yet unscheduled hearing. (c/o StandDown and CDW) Among the state-of-the-art procedures that Alabama says should exempt its new execution protocol from a Baze stay: calling the inmate’s name and pinching his arm to make sure he is unconscious. (c/o Abolish)

In Connecticut, an anti-death penalty congregation struggles with the violent deaths of three cherished members.

Alabama Execution Blocked, Mississippi Next?

October 25, 2007

News Update 10.25.07

North Carolina

Nothing to report.


The 11th Circuit stayed the execution of Alabama’s Daniel Lee Siebert, pending the resolution of Baze. You can read the per curiam decision here. Attorneys are still trying to procure a stay for Earl Wesley Berry of Mississippi. (c/o CDW)

Berry is one of three inmates whose executions are scheduled to go forward by the end of the year. Arkansas’ Don William Davis and Flordia’s Mark Dean Schwab have also not yet received stays of execution.

Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights was in Massachusetts this week, testifying before the state legislature as it considered a bill to reinstate the death penalty. Among the speakers was Robert Curley, whose son’s brutal murder in 1997 sparked the push to bring capital punishment back to the Bay State. In the decade since his son’s death, Curley has become an opponent of the death penalty due to its disproportionate application to the poor.

The Onion (a satirical newspaper) shows the hidden consequences of a pause in executions: “To all outward appearances, “Kevin” is a typical Southern state governor. He enjoys vetoing bills, attending ribbon-cutting ceremonies, and hanging out with friends. But the recent suspension of lethal injections in 10 states has put Kevin’s political life in serious jeopardy. Unable to wait for the U.S. Supreme Court to determine whether the practice constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, Kevin, like many young governors who find themselves saddled with an unwanted death row inmate, has been forced to take desperate action and obtain an illegal back-alley lethal injection.” (c/o SLAP)

(For the record, this is DeathWatch’s favorite criminal law-related Onion article ever.)


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.