Getting to know Zane Hill

Zane Hill was the first death row inmate I ever met.  (More on the first visit at  He was a wife abuser, but this fact was never an obstacle to our relationship.  For one thing, he didn’t kill his wife.  He shot his adult son, who also had a gun.  For another, Zane was a grandfather and looked older than the 57 years he had behind him.  Finally, he was drinking and taking drugs the day of the crime.  So, he was “not in his right mind” when he shot his son and shot at his wife.   Perhaps I was rationalizing, but Zane was not your typical death row inmate, if there was such a thing. 

The hard life of the mountains and the hard drinking had taken their toll on Zane both physically and mentally.   He had many ailments and clearly was not the brightest bulb in the pack.    I was never apprehensive about meeting with Zane.   Indeed, he kind of reminded me of my grandfather – not because of his violence but because he was a mountain man.  

The Center recruited a couple of private lawyers to represent Zane in post-conviction proceedings:  Harold Bender and Robert Stephens, both of Charlotte, NC.  They were experienced attorneys but neither had litigated a post-conviction case.  In fact, Bob had never litigated a criminal case.   I stayed on the legal team to lead the investigation and be the capital post-conviction “expert.”   I don’t think Bob and Harold knew this was my first such case as well.  What mattered was that I was an attorney at the death penalty resource center.    Though I was a novice, the stakes were too high to act as one. 

The Zane that I came to know was kind, funny and humble, and that was his reputation — at least when he was sober — in the holler from which he came.   I never knew the man who would binge drink for weeks at a time and become violent to those he loved most.  That’s when he became like his father and, sadly, like many men in the holler.   

The trial lawyers had done little investigation into Zane’s family and medical history, something that is critical to presenting an adequate defense in a capital case, particularly of someone who unquestionably did the killing such as Zane.   Therefore, I was determined to leave no stone unturned in developing the story of Zane Hill.  

Zane was born in Buncombe County North Carolina where he lived his entire life until his son’s shooting.   With the help of law students and an investigator, I spent months combing the hollers of western North Carolina talking to anyone who would talk to me about Zane and talk they did.  I came to know Zane better than he knew himself.  I uncovered a compelling story for life, a story never presented to the jury. 

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