Beaverdam Loop Road

The most stressful part of investigating a death penalty case for a defense attorney is talking with the family members of the murder victim.  Needless to say, many survivors of murder are not expecting to be contacted by the killer’s attorney – especially years after the trial — and many are not happy when they are contacted.   But when the family members of the victim are also the family members of your client, you have no choice.  If you want to be a diligent and effective advocate, you have to reach out to your client’s family.

We had one reason for hope of victim family cooperation in Zane’s case:  he and his wife Frannie had reconciled.   After an initial period of shock and anger, and after Zane had been tried and sentenced to death, Frannie began making the four hour trek once a month to Central Prison to visit the man who had killed her son.  According to Zane, she had forgiven him and she would help us.  See post at

This news was good, but it wasn’t news I could count on.  Frannie still lived in the same small house in which Zane had shot and killed her son — on Beaverdam Loop Road, set far back in a holler.    Zane had given me a long list of his friends to contact, many of whom lived on Beaverdam Loop Road.   There was only one way in and out of the holler and that was by Beaverdam Road, a long winding country road through beautiful farmland.   We had to take all precautions to protect our investigation, in case Frannie would not speak with us or, worse, tell others not to speak with us.  Thus, my plan was to talk to as many friends that we could, and before any of the Hills found out we were in the holler.

Zane had given me many addresses of his family and friends, which was helpful.  In the early 1990s, there was no internet you could use to find people.  Without an address, the resources were the phonebook and good old fashion gumshoeing. If you couldn’t get an address, you could often find someone who could tell you how to find person you sought.  Directions given often were descriptive in nature: “Go over two hills, turn right at the tree with a big split in it, then go past the red barn and just past the pasture with the big black cow, you will see the trailer on the left.”

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Zane’s neighbors.  These people may have once been Zane’s friends but would they still think of him that way?   Or would they want to have nothing to do with their friend-turned-murderer?  After all, Frannie still lived among them.  Would they be willing to help Zane without her okay?   So, our first trip into the holler was not preceded by any phone calls.  We just showed up, hoping people were home.

Stealing my nerves, my investigator and I began knocking on doors.  To my great relief, Zane’s friends — young and old, male and female alike — were welcoming and eager to help.   They accepted that Zane had shot his son, Randy, a man they all liked.  He was the “good” son, the one that caused no trouble.   But, person after person believed that Zane would not have shot Randy if he had been in his right mind. Yes, they knew about the reported history of domestic violence but most minimized it.   More than one neighbor explained, “Frannie could give it as good as she got it.”

Family Secrets (Part II)

Zane’s father, Curtis, was by everyone’s account mean and cruel.  His meanness did not come out of a bottle, as one might expect from a mountain man.  Curtis did not drink alcohol.  He was just plain mean.

Zane and his mother lived in constant fear of Curtis.  Curtis would get angry at them for anything or for nothing at all.  When he was mad at Zane, which was most every day, Curtis would yell at him, call him stupid and tell him he was a bastard.

Curtis would beat the living daylights out of Zane.  Curtis would beat him with his fist or whatever he happened to have in his hand at the time.  Zane was forced to milk the cows before school.  If he did not “do it right” or – heaven forbid – he spilled some of the milk, Curtis would beat Zane.  Once, when Zane was about seven years old, he broke his arm.  Curtis beat Zane for breaking his arm.

Curtis would often beat Zane as a matter of routine when Zane came home from school.  To avoid Curtis and the abuse, Zane would plow the fields until late into the night, sometimes as late as two or three in the morning.  When Zane was about ten, he started spending his time over at his neighbor Hoile’s house to avoid Curtis.  Zane would stay in his room a lot when he was younger.  If he was not in his room he would be over at Hoile’s.

Curtis would do other things just to be mean to Zane.  When Zane was very young he had a pet dog which he loved.  Curtis killed the dog and made sure that Zane knew it.  Curtis never offered an explanation to Zane for why he killed his dog.  But then, Curtis seemed to have no misgivings about hurting animals.  He was known to regularly beat cows with sticks, once beating a cow with a hoe in the head killing it.   Curtis even beat his blind horse.  He would get mad at the horse because it did not know where it was going.

Curtis was also known to wield a knife.  Curtis once cut the throat of Albert Whitaker, who had been dating his daughter, Margaret.  Albert made a comment about Margaret going out with other men.  The next thing Albert knew, he was in the hospital, with a gapping slit in his throat.  Curtis even tried to cut Zane with a knife, but Zane escaped.

Despite the reprehensible nature of Curtis’ treatment of his only son, it paled in comparison to the brutality Curtis heaped upon his wife, Selma.  There was physical abuse.  Selma’s sister Mary and her son Zane both recalled seeing the bruises, black eyes, and welts on Selma’s body from Curtis’ beatings.  Curtis used to jerk Selma out of bed in the middle of the night for various reasons such as to go look for Zane or to milk the cows.  Curtis beat Selma once with a switch to try and get her to milk a cow that would kick people in the head when anyone tried to milk it.  Selma’s back was always hurting her.  She even had to go to the hospital a couple of times because of her back.  Eventually Selma had to have her kidney removed, apparently caused by Curtis’s abuse.

There was also psychological abuse.  Curtis was always yelling at Selma, often calling her crazy.   But the worst came at bedtime.  Curtis would twist his shirt up like a rope and keep it by his bedside.  He would tell Selma to go to sleep but not expect to wake up, because he was going to strangle her in her sleep.   Alternatively, he would threaten to hang Selma.  Once he was caught with Selma up on a ramp in the barn with a rope around her neck.  Someone entered the barn and he desisted.

Mary was very protective of her sister Selma.  Mary told me that Selma was the quiet one and that she was the fighting one.  When Mary came around, Curtis would behave himself.

Neither Zane nor Selma talked to others much about Curtis’ abuse.  Selma was afraid of Curtis and never told of Curtis’ abuse until after he died.  Some family members saw the abuse firsthand.  After Curtis’ death, Selma told a few close friends of the abuse.  When the abuse was occurring, the young Zane told Hoile about some of what was happening.  As an adult, Zane rarely talked about Curtis.

When I asked Zane why he didn’t talk about the abuse, he said he was ashamed.  “I knew that other kids weren’t treated like that by their fathers, so I didn’t want anyone to know.”   Now I knew why he didn’t tell his defense attorneys at trial . . . and why I had to get the details from his family.  Old secrets are hard to break.

Family Secrets

Like Aunt Elsie, Zane’s Aunt Mary was very receiving of Pat and me.  She was as sharp as a tack and, on several occasions, opened up her home, which unlike her sister’s was quite normal.   Selma had confided in Mary all those years ago, and now Mary passed along the tragic tale of Curtis’ cruelty to his family.   Adding to this tale was Curtis’ old buddy Hoile.  Hoile owned a dairy farm across the road from where the Hills’ raised their children.   Though Elsie, Mary, and Hoile were all eager to help Zane, no one had ever asked for their help.  As a result, Pat and I were able to gather crucial mitigating evidence that Zane’s jury never heard.

Zane was one of three children born to Curtis and Selma Hill, who were tenant farmers.  They were extremely poor, owning very few personal possessions.  Yet, poverty was not what ground Selma and her children down.  It was the almost constant psychological and physical abuse heaped upon them by Curtis.

Monroe was the first born of Curtis and Selma, arriving on May 19, 1928.  He lived less than two years, dying on March 25, 1930.  Monroe died of Pellagra, which is a disease associated with malnutrition.  It was the Great Depression, but Monroe suffered from more than just being hungry.   Selma revealed to her sisters that Curtis could not stand Monroe’s crying, and would threaten to beat Monroe.  One story stood out:  once when the baby was crying, Curtis took his son by the heels and swung him in the air.   Monroe’s short life was a secret kept from Zane until he was twelve years old.

Margaret was born not long after Monroe’s death, but she did not suffer the same fate.  No one ever saw Curtis yell at Margaret or physically abuse her.  Some said she was spoiled, while others wondered if she suffered a different kind of abuse.  Margaret escaped her family by joining the military and never looked back.  She settled in Hawaii.

Zane was born on May 9, 1936.   He remembers first hearing his mother cry when he was five or six years old.  Zane began to realize his father was hurting his mother.  From then on, Zane would hear his mother cry most every night.

The young Zane and Margaret were described as opposites.  Zane was viewed as easy going, friendly, and slow to lose his temper.  Margaret, on the other hand, was viewed as spoiled and short tempered.  Zane made friends easily and was generally liked by other kids.  Such was not the case with Margaret.

Margaret and Zane were prone to fight.  With Margaret being five years older, she tended to get the upper hand.  However, Zane remembered Margaret always standing up for him whenever he fought with others.   He also remembered that Margaret, even when present, never stood up to Curtis when he abused him or Selma.   Zane didn’t blame Margaret though.

We tried to locate Margaret but made it only as far as one of her daughters, Susan.  “Mom’s dead,” Susan told me on the phone.  Zane and his aunts all believed she still lived in Hawaii.  “Mom told us not to notify her family of her death.”   No, this request did not seem odd to Susan who explained that whenever she would ask her mother about her childhood, Margaret would respond with “It’s none of your business.”  No, Susan did not know about her uncle being on death row.  Margaret told her long ago that Zane had been killed in an accident when his truck rolled over into a ditch.

What’s a holler?

No, I didn’t spell it wrong.   Though you can spell it “hollow,” those of us from Appalachia pronounce and spell it “holler.”   Technically, it is a “small valley between mountains.”   But we never really think of it technically.

It didn’t take me long to conclude that I was the right person to be investigating a murder case in the hollers of Western North Carolina.   Not because of any brilliance on my part, but because of my common heritage with the people of the region.   While I am not a mountain woman myself, I am not far removed.  (more at   In addition, I spent my early adult years deep in Appalachia, getting my schooling at Carson Newman College (recently turned University — ).   That is where I met my first husband, who was from “them thar hills” down the road in Kingsport, TN.  We were married 10 years.

My common heritage with Zane, his friends and family was not just geographic in nature, though; it was also socio-economic.   Who would have thought that living in trailers in the country as a child would come in handy as a lawyer in my 30s?  Also, though sad to say, it didn’t hurt that I was white.   It was rare to cross paths with a black person in the hollers but not rare to pass a confederate flag.

So, I was comfortable with driving – though never by myself — the winding, sometimes dirt, back roads into the mountains and down into the hollers.  My most colorful visit was with one of Zane’s aunts, Elsie.  She was a sister of Zane’s mother, Selma.  Selma was living with the Hills at the time of the shooting but had passed away since Zane’s trial.   So, we got most of our information about Zane’s childhood from Elsie, Mary (Selma’s other sister), and Frannie (Zane’s wife).   All three were strong mountain women, but Elsie won the “best in show” prize.

The year was 1994 but it could have been 1894.   Elsie lived in a holler known as Big Sandy Mush.  As one website even describes it today,

Though less than fifteen miles from Asheville, the historic farming community of Big Sandy Mush seems a hundred years away in time. It’s completely ringed by mountains that have protected it from unkind progress. There is no commercial development in Sandy Mush-not even a gas station-and life goes on here at a gentler pace.

Though I would typically call the family members of a client ahead of a home visit, Elsie had no phone.  So, my investigator, Pat, and I headed off for Big Sandy Mush, not sure if we could find Elsie or, if we did, whether she would speak with us.

Elsie lived at the end of a long winding dirt road in a wooden shack next to the local school bus turn-around, which was the landmark that people would give us to find her.  What we found there was an old small cabin surrounded by dirt, chickens, and firewood.  Not far from the cabin was a well, situated near a babbling brook.

“Well, this is quaint,” I said to Pat as we got out of our non-descript rental car and approached the cabin.   An elderly woman in a housedress emerged.   “We are looking for Elsie.”  I announced.  “What you want?” the woman responded suspiciously.  I explained that we represented her nephew Zane on appeal and wanted to talk to her about him.  The look on Elsie’s face shifted from concern to relief.  “Of course,” she said, “I would do anything for Zane.”

Elsie welcomed us into the cabin, which seemed to consist of two rooms, only one of which Elsie occupied.   It was dark inside, lit by a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling.  There was very little room to move around as Elsie’s possessions – clothes, blankets, books, medicine, and just stuff – were piled up all around the walls.   The room included a pot-belly stove which served both as a heater and a cooking surface, a few hard chairs and a big pile of blankets, which appeared to be Elsie’s bed.   We chose to sit on the chairs, from which we could see through the cracks in the walls.

Elsie was a delight.  She had nothing but good things to say about Zane.  “Poor boy.  He never had a chance.”   Describing Zane’s childhood, Elsie provided insight into a world in which women rarely found a good man.   Women who survived either had run off their scoundrel of a husband or were lucky enough for their husband to disappear on his own.    Those that didn’t, like Selma, suffered greatly, as did their children.

Elsie’s husband was long gone, and she had been on her own for decades in her little cabin on the brook.   Her children visited and tried to get her to move out, but she would not.   Despite her 80 some years, she had rarely seen a doctor.  She showed us her leg as evidence of just how little she needed doctors.    She had sores on it but they had been worse.  “I just pulled the skin off the sores and fed it to the chickens,” she said proudly.

Meeting my first death row client

A man in a read jumpsuit appeared outside the door on the other side of the viewing window.  His movements suggested that the guard was removing handcuffs.  When the door swung open, Zane shuffled in and took a seat.  He was just a couple of feet away but the concrete wall with the plexiglas window kept us from physical contact.   Zane did not look the death row type.  He looked like a “normal” old man, older than the 57 years he had behind him.  The hard life of the mountains and the hard drinking were apparent.

Henderson explained our purpose, and Zane seemed pleased that someone was paying attention to his case.  I explained how I would be developing the facts of his case, in support of his court appointed attorneys.  We had to move fast given the deadlines set by the Court.   He was ok with my plan, but he wanted me to know one thing: “I can’t do a life sentence.”

Hmmm.  “So, you would rather be executed than do a life sentence?” I asked.   He slowly nodded and explained the hellacious prison conditions that were draining him of life.

“I didn’t mean to kill him,” Zane said, referring to his son.  “Randy was a good kid . . . but he pulled a gun on me.”  Zane continued to tell us his perspective of what happened that fateful night, which was consistent with his trial testimony.  He believed that he shot his son in self-defense and that he did not shoot at his wife.  Rather, the gun went off accidentally when he went out the door.

Zane was polite, looking down much of the time, glancing up occasionally as if to check to see if we were still there.  The D.A. offered a plea deal to second degree murder, but Zane believed even then that he couldn’t do the time.  Had he taken the offer he would be eligible for parole in 7-10 years.  But Zane was a stubborn man.  His clouded memories of the shooting convinced him that he shot in self-defense, and he hated being locked up.  He was very fearful of police and of guards.

Zane had no trusted attorney to walk him through the deal.  He hired one of the best lawyers in town when first arrested, the lawyer who had done previous work for him, but Zane ran out of money very quickly.  So, he was assigned court-appointed attorneys, who he didn’t know and who had very little capital experience.

I asked about his wife.  “Are you and Frannie still married?  “Yea,” he answered.  “She visits me every month.”  Really?   This news was encouraging.   The mother of the victim regularly visits her son’s killer.  One of the hardest aspects of a death case for defense lawyers is dealing with the surviving victims.  In domestic cases, the killer’s family and the victim’s family are one and the same.  This reality complicates the work of the legal team who relies upon a client’s family for help in building a case for life.

Zane assured me that Frannie would help me.  I had my doubts, but told him I would contact her.

No control

It was time for me to meet my first death row client, Zane Hill.  Henderson agreed to introduce me.   He had not met Zane, but Zane would be familiar with his name, which had appeared on some of the court papers.

I drove us in my white jeep, which I had recently bought.  It was the first car of my own that I had chosen.  Until then, Paul and I had shared a small Toyota pick-up.  I chose the jeep, which had a cloth top, as an expression of my being an independent-minded woman, with a touch of toughness.

Unlike the image from movies of Southern death rows, North Carolina’s death row is not at the end of a long isolated dirt road.  Rather, it is right dab in the middle of the capital city, Raleigh.  The maximum security prison that houses death row is less than two miles from the state government buildings from which the General Assembly and the Governor govern.  It is about the same distance to the North Carolina State University, where young people study and party — oblivious to those down the road who have thrown that opportunity away.

I had been to Central Prison twice before.   One of my prior non-capital clients had AIDS and had been housed at the hospital at Central Prison.  Also, I had toured the prison when I was clerking for a federal judge.  This visit, however, would be my first to the regular inmate visitation area.

I pulled into the parking lot next to the small concrete visitor center that sits in front of Central Prison, between the street and the tall barbed-wire fence that surrounds it.  My cowboy boots hit the gravel as I exited the jeep.  As we walked across the lot towards the door of the visitor center, I got the sense that we were being watched, but I could see no one.  Perhaps inmates were watching us through the slim windows lined up across the front of the prison; or maybe guards were looking down from the tall towers at the corners of the prison wall; or perhaps guards were discreetly watching us approach on small video screens, streaming images from cameras no doubt located all around us.

It was September 1993, and in those days, lawyers had the ability to drop in on their clients at Central Prison whenever they wanted to do so.    You didn’t have to call ahead.  And if you did, it didn’t speed up the process.   The prison never notified your client that you were coming, and you inevitably waited for guards to locate your client and to identify someone who could escort your client to the visitation area, located on the third floor of the main building.

Heaven forbid you came during shift change.  Such a mistake would cost you at least an additional 30 minute wait time.   You also tried to avoid visitation day for families and friends.  First, you did not want to take time away from any visits your client might have.  Second, you wanted to avoid the chaos of stressed out visitors, often with kids in tow, trying to figure out what to do.

Henderson and I signed the sheet at the front desk, and the administrator, Ralph, called the main building to find available guards to deliver our client.  We began our journey into the prison.

Visitors enter the maximum security prison through the front door as one would enter any building.   It is only then that you are physically prevented from going further, as you are confronted with a steel door with a guard observation room next to it.

Henderson picked up the phone receiver on the wall and waited for someone to pick up on the other side of the glass.  “We are here for are an attorney visit,” he said and hung up.  A metal drawer pushed out from the wall, like at a drive-in window at a bank.

I followed Henderson’s lead.  We placed our identification and paperwork in the drawer, which then closed.  A few minutes later the drawer pushed out again with all our items.  The steel door slowly slid open.   That was our cue.  We walked through the door to an elevator and waited.  “Shouldn’t we push the button,” I asked impatiently.  Henderson just smiled.  The elevator door opened, and we stepped in.  The door closed, and we again waited.  We had no control of the elevator, an unusual feeling of helplessness.

After what seemed like an eternity, the elevator started it journey upward.    When it stopped, the  doors opened.  We faced a row of empty booths, not much bigger than a telephone booth, with a glassed guard room in the middle.  Each booth had two metal stools bolted to the floor in front of a wall with a large window into a similarly sized booth with a door.

The guard in the control room directed us to booth 4.   Once Henderson and I found our assigned booth, we each claimed a stool.  Then, once again, we waited.

Finishing the Opinion

At Zane’s trial, the prosecution painted a disturbing picture of an abusive husband who tortured and controlled his wife.  This picture explained the death sentence.   In 1990, there were 711 homicides in North Carolina.  Only 14 of the killers were sentenced to death.  Thus, with any death sentence, I ask myself “Why did this defendant get death?”

The strategy of the defense attorneys was to convince the jury that Zane did not intend to kill his son.  If he didn’t, then Zane was guilty of no more than second degree murder.  I dug further into the Court opinion to see what additional evidence there might be.

I breezed through the litany of legal issues raised by appellate counsel, who were also the trial attorneys.  Much evidence was excluded by the trial court.  The NC Supreme Court laid the fault at the feet of the defense attorneys.  The Court made them look inexperienced and inept.   One piece of excluded evidence caught my attention:

Dr. Felix testified that the defendant suffered some brain damage and the defendant’s use of alcohol and drugs worsened this condition. Dr. Felix expressed his opinion that, in light of the defendant’s condition, “[I]f he had formed a plan, he wouldn’t have been able to remember it.”

The Court found the doctor’s testimony to be speculative, and thus, the trial judge was correct in excluding it.   I looked forward to talking to Dr. Felix.

What about other mitigating evidence?  In a capital trial of a defendant who clearly did the deed, good defense counsel will build a case for life throughout the trial.   Too often, the main event is the sentencing phase.  Here the burden is on the prosecution to show why the jury should take the extraordinary step of sentencing a man or woman to death.  But defense counsel now has a client who the jury just convicted of murder, so counsel has to bring their best game to convince the jury to spare the life of this murderer.

The Court said little about any other mitigating evidence.  What was said seemed laughable.  Counsel presented testimony from a friend that he and Zane had been bitten by a rabid dog as children.  Counsel tried to get the trial court to instruct the jury that “The defendant’s chronological age is fifty-four, but his physiological age is in fact seventy-five to eighty.”  However, they presented no evidence to bolster this assertion.

I put down the opinion and took a breath.  I had not yet represented a wife abuser.  I knew the day would come and wondered how I would feel about it.  Sympathy for the man was certainly not my first emotion.   Given my past experiences, I was naturally sympathetic to Mrs. Hill.  Looking for the bright side, I thought, “at least he didn’t kill her.”

How to Read a Death Penalty Opinion

The Court began its opinion in Zane’s case with a punch:

In October 1989 the defendant Zane Brown Hill abandoned his wife Bonnie Hill. Early on the morning of 29 November 1989, the defendant broke a bedroom window and entered his estranged wife’s home. The defendant placed a pistol to his wife’s throat and said he had come to kill her. He then ordered his wife to bed. The defendant soon passed out, and Mrs. Hill left the house.

Great, I thought to myself.  Zane had a history of torturing his wife and had threatened to kill her.   I was hoping for a single bad event.  The Court continued, increasing the dramatic tension:

On 10 January 1990 Mrs. Hill left for work at 6:20 a.m. The defendant telephoned her at work several times that day to discuss the possibility of their reconciliation. Mrs. Hill arrived home at approximately 5:30 p.m. and noticed the defendant’s van behind a trailer located on her property. Mrs. Hill went into the house and spoke with her son Randall and the defendant’s mother who also lived with her. Mrs. Hill and Randall saw the defendant leave the nearby trailer and approach the house carrying a rifle. Randall then got a pistol from within the house.

Alright, heading to the house with a rifle looks bad, but at least we have the victim getting a gun.  Maybe this was a showdown type of scenario.

The defendant entered the house and pointed his rifle at his son Randall. The defendant had alcohol on his breath. Randall asked his father to put the rifle down. The defendant’s mother also attempted to calm the defendant. During the commotion, Randall went to a bedroom to call the police. The defendant ran after Randall. Mrs. Hill heard one shot fired, and then Randall moaned. A second shot was fired, and Randall moaned again. A third and final shot was then fired.

No such luck.  It doesn’t look like Randall drew his gun, and it looks like Zane shot Randall to stop him from calling the police.

Mrs. Hill ran into the bedroom and saw her son lying on the floor with the telephone receiver in his hand. She attempted to help her son, but the defendant struck her with the butt of the rifle knocking her to the floor. As the defendant was attempting to reload the rifle, Mrs. Hill ran out of the house. As she ran across her yard, she heard gun shots. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw the defendant standing on her porch holding the rifle. She ran to a neighbor’s house and asked the neighbor to call the police. The defendant did not pursue her.

Oh, Zane wasn’t distraught about killing his son.  Cold.  And he tried to kill his wife too.  Now we have a bona fide death-qualifying aggravating factor.

Jason Scott Smith, a neighbor of Mrs. Hill’s, testified that on 10 January 1990 he saw the defendant at a garage near the Hill residence. When Mrs. Hill arrived at home that afternoon, the defendant told Smith, “You’re going to see some blue lights now.” A few minutes later Smith saw Mrs. Hill run out of the house. The defendant came out to the porch and shot toward her, but he missed.  [Jeremy Banks also testified that he saw the defendant shoot at Mrs. Hill]

The prosecution strengthened their case for premeditation.

Sheriff’s deputies apprehended the defendant later that day. They found the defendant lying in the front seat of a truck with a rifle underneath him. The deputies seized the rifle.

Zane fled, signaling that he knew what he had done.

At the crime scene, the deputies found Randall’s body on the floor of a bedroom. The telephone cord was wrapped around his arm, and the receiver was on the floor.  . . . The deputies also retrieved a fully loaded .38 caliber pistol from Randall’s right front pants pocket.

Randall was shot calling 911 and didn’t even have his gun out.

An autopsy of Randall Hill’s body revealed three gunshot wounds: (1) one in the upper abdomen; (2) one in the upper middle back; and (3) one in the left upper side of the back. One bullet had passed through the aorta producing massive bleeding inside Randall’s chest. Randall Hill died from the combination of gunshot wounds to his chest and abdomen.

Zane shot Randall in the back, but I cannot tell if those shots were first or after Randall reacted to the first shot.

Finally, I reached the defense’s evidence:

The defendant had a long history of alcohol and drug abuse. On 10 January 1990 the defendant began drinking at 9 a.m. and consumed twelve beers during the course of the day. The defendant also took four Darvons, a pain reliever, and two Flexorils, a muscle relaxant.

Whew.  He was mentally impaired.  I don’t know how he was even walking.

The defendant called his wife at her work on 10 January 1990 to discuss a possible reconciliation. He testified . . . .

Whoa!  Zane testified.  Having a capital defendant testify is a very risky move.  Only the most intelligent, sincere defendants can pull it off.  The jury will look for any hint of dishonesty and for the all-important remorse.   Very few defendants can hold up under such scrutiny during their trial, when they are under extreme stress.   Many are even medicated, reducing the chances of showing any sincere emotion.  Yes, testifying is the client’s choice.  But a good lawyer can build the trust needed to guide his or her client to do what is in the client’s best interest.

So, Zane testified

that he went to the trailer near the Hill residence because his wife asked him to do so. When Mrs. Hill arrived home at approximately 5:45 p.m., the defendant walked up to the house with a rifle intending to leave it in the house as he had always done. When the defendant entered the house, Randall threatened him with a pistol. Randall went to telephone the sheriff, and the defendant followed. While Randall was on the phone, Randall drew the pistol on the defendant a second time. The defendant testified, “I just figured he was going to maybe shoot me, and I pulled the trigger, I reckon. That’s all I remember.” The defendant testified that he never reloaded the rifle, never struck his wife with it, and never fired it at her.

I bet the jury didn’t buy a word of this.

The defendant testified that he left the house after shooting Randall. While walking through a field, he fell into a creek. He then borrowed clean clothes from a neighbor. Later, he got into a truck and fell asleep on the front seat. The sheriff’s deputies woke him later and arrested him.

The defendant also testified about the November 1989 incident when he entered Mrs. Hill’s residence. The defendant testified that he went to his estranged wife’s house to retrieve some of his clothes. His wife had changed the locks to the house. He broke a window because he had no other way to enter the house.

Yea, she changed the locks on the door because she was scared of Zane.  Nice revelation.

At the time he killed Randall, the defendant was living with Teresa Taylor and her son Edward. Taylor testified that the defendant treated her son Edward like his own son. Taylor also testified that the defendant took Darvon and other prescription drugs for pain.

Wonderful.  The mistress testifies on Zane’s behalf.   It just gets better and better.

Dr. Richard Reed Felix, a psychiatric expert, conducted a psychiatric evaluation of the defendant. He testified that the defendant took prescription drugs for pain resulting from his arthritis. Dr. Felix testified that on 10 January 1990 the defendant suffered from a degree of brain damage, primarily to the frontal and limbeck areas which control the processing and sorting of information. The defendant’s long-term alcohol abuse had contributed to his brain damage. In Dr. Felix’s opinion, the drugs the defendant testified that he had consumed on the day of the killing, coupled with the eight to ten beers the defendant said he drank, would have aggravated his mental impairment and worsened his perception.

Brain damage!  Thank God.  Though hard for juries to appreciate without good lawyering, brain damage usually impairs the ability to reason through decisions and to control impulses.   Add alcohol and drugs and the brain-damaged individual is seeing the world through mud.

Mrs. Hill is then called to the stand to rebut Zane’s testimony – another reason not to put a capital defendant on the stand.

. . . on 1 January 1990 [] the defendant came to her residence with a pistol. The defendant and Mrs. Hill went for a drive on that day, and the defendant shot the pistol two times into the floorboard of the car. The defendant then rented a motel room, and the defendant and Mrs. Hill went to bed. Shortly afterwards, the defendant passed out. Mrs. Hill found the pistol the defendant had been carrying, took it with her, and went home.  At some point during the incident, the defendant threatened to kill Mrs. Hill.

As if the prior home invasion and threats were not enough, now we have Zane kidnapping his wife and  threatening to kill her, just a few days before killing his son.

I reminded myself that there is always more to the story than the story told by a Court sending a defendant towards the execution chamber.

Zane Hill

The most pressing of my assigned cases was the case of Zane Hill.   He had just entered the post-conviction phase of review.   Technically, Zane should have been dead, but his execution date of September 10 had come and gone with neither Zane nor his attorneys ever knowing.   These were the days when execution dates were set simply to get counsel moving.  Once a date was set, counsel understood that it was time to file the defendant’s first post-conviction appeal and that, once they did, a stay of execution would be granted.  Of course, this system only worked if counsel knew of the date.  Thankfully, the prison officials recognized Zane’s date was a legal fiction.

The two court-appointed attorneys were Harold Bender and Robert Stephens.  Both were private attorneys in Charlotte, a couple of hours from the scene of the crime just outside of Asheville.  Harold was an experienced criminal defense attorney.  He had his own practice and had some success doing death penalty trials.  Bob was a civil attorney at a big law firm.  He had been recruited to take the case through a push by The Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court to convince trial attorneys to help out the growing number of death row inmates in North Carolina without attorneys.

I settled into an oversized chair in the library and began reading the North Carolina Supreme Court opinion upholding Zane’s conviction and death sentence.  When reading an opinion by an appellate court upholding a death sentence, you should expect the court to play up the bad facts and minimize any good ones.  Given the gravity of such a decision, judges will go out of their way to convince the reader that the facts prove they have done the right and just thing – an understandable effort to wash the blood from their hands.