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.

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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.