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.

My First Thoughts on the Death Penalty

In memory of Will Campbell . . . .

Struggling to Breathe

I didn’t think much about the death penalty before college.  I grew up a Fundamentalist Baptist.  I don’t remember a sermon on the death penalty but certainly knew that plenty of church folk were for it.   Something about “thou shall not kill” and “the wages of sin is death.”    Though even as a child, I wasn’t sure how you got around the circular problem of killing a killer is still killing.

I didn’t think much about the death penalty in college either.  As I came to better appreciate God’s grace and Jesus’ ministry to the poor and dispossessed, I knew I was against it, but my concern was more on the millions of people who needed the basics in life to survive.  Only a few persons were executed each year.  The greater need was of those dying due to the lack of food, shelter and safety from domestic violence.


View original post 161 more words

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.

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. 

a feminist faces violence against women

The occurrence of violent crime has escalated significantly in my lifetime.  As you can see from the charts below, the worst of it occurred in the 1980s and 1990s.

crime rate graph

homicide rate graph

In North Carolina, the overall crime rate increased 39.6 percent between 1984 and 1994.  The state’s violent crime rate experienced the greatest spike between 1988 and 1992, with a 35.3 percent increase.[1]  This was the period in which I became immersed in murder cases.

One cause commonly cited for the increase in violent crime during the 1980s and ‘90s is the emergence of crack cocaine.  I can think of another:  there was a dramatic change in attitudes about violence against women and children.   I can remember when hitting your wife and even raping her were not crimes.   “She must have driven him to it or even wanted it” was a common response.

Thus, the increase in violent crime is, in part, perception.  Acts once tolerated as part of domestic relations became criminal.    As a result, women began acting accordingly and reporting it.  Of course, even today, many women still do not report violent acts perpetrated on them.

I grew up among rocky domestic relations.  I witnessed first-hand my mama and the men in her life argue, stomp, slam doors, and even pull the keys out of the ignition while traveling down the road.  I never saw physical violence, though it likely happened.  I also heard the tales of the affairs of my father and my grandfather, a different kind of disrespect and abuse of women.  Then there was the legendary abuse by my uncle T.W. of his wife and son, ending with his son shooting him dead.

I was one to stay out of the way.  I was not a vocal child.  Nevertheless, there was early evidence of feminism.  I was one of three girls who became the first female members of the Key Club at Coosa High School.   The boys, by the way, showed no mercy in our initiation.

In college, I was introduced to the wide world of “women’s issues.”  Whenever given the chance, I studied and wrote on women and religion.  My mentor was the only female religion professor, Carolyn Blevins.  I loved her classes on women in the Bible and in Baptist history.

In Seminary, my service gravitated towards helping women and children. I spent one summer volunteering at a battered women’s safe house in southeast Atlanta, a poor, primarily African-American community.  I saw firsthand the plight of poor women trying to gain independence from abusive men.

When I returned to Louisville, I began volunteering at the local rape crisis center. I was on-call just a few nights a month. If called, I was required to rush to the hospital to meet a rape victim and accompany her through the process. Or, if lucky, the call would be from a victim who was having a hard time coping and just wanted to talk.   (more at I saw and listened to women in terror.

Fast forward to 1993 and my first months as a death penalty defense lawyer.  I wondered how I would handle being an advocate for a man who had killed a wife, girlfriend or child.

[1] Crime and Justine in North Carolina: An Examination of 1984-1994 Data and Trends, available at (last visited June 3, 2013).

Saying Good-Bye to a Client

Basden funeral

The usher handed me a printed program as I rushed into the funeral home.  We were late; Pat was parking the car.  “You must be the minister,” the well-dressed man posited.   “What?”  My mind was trying to make sense of his declaration that sounded more like a question.   “Well, I did go to seminary,” I thought to myself as I stared at the usher, wondering how he knew.  I opened up the program in my hand; yep, there was my name:  Cindy Adcock, Officiating.

Rose had asked me the day before to say a few words at her brother’s funeral.  Ernest was my third client to be executed, but my first to have a funeral.  I had imagined a small room with a few people saying “a few words” about Ernest.  I looked through the open double doors.  The room looked like a church sanctuary, and it was packed!  I took a deep breath and headed down the hall in search of Rose.  I reminded myself of my execution mantra:  expect the unexpected and roll with it.


The images of the last few days flooded my mind as I walked onto the elevated platform at the front of the funeral home.  Ernest lay in front of me in a flag draped coffin.  His family sat in the front rows of the packed house.   Organ music was playing.  When it stopped, Ernest’s niece, Kristin, rose and began singing a cappella: Precious Lord, Take My Hand.   I moved deliberately to the podium, led a prayer and spoke from the notes that I had scribbled in pencil under the blankets early that morning:  “We are all more than our worst deed, and Ernest Basden was much more.  What I want to share with you today is what I believe Ernest taught us.”  I proceeded to share lessons in forgiveness, hope, faith, death and continuing the fight against the violence of the death penalty.

After I sat down, Ernest’s brother James rose and stepped onto the platform.  He had been designated the “family spokesperson.”  I didn’t know what to expect.  He began singing/speaking “Let it Be” in an endearing off pitch manner.  When I find myself in times of trouble Mother Mary comes to me.”  Mary was the name of Ernest and James’ mother, who died tragically long ago.  James struggled to remain composed, as did I.

At the end of the service, I stepped down, walked to the center aisle and slowly led Ernest’s casket to the waiting hearse.  My silver pick-up truck had been designated the lead vehicle of the funeral procession, immediately behind the police escort.  “Seriously?” I snarked to my husband.  “They killed him and now they are honoring him.”

The long procession slowly snaked through Kinston, finally turning right, just past the Walmart, into the cemetery.

The sky was a clear blue.  By the time I reached the gravesite, Ernest was waiting in his casket.  As I approached, Rose handed me Ernest’s Bible and asked me to read the marked scripture, his favorite but one I cannot now remember.

After I read the verse, moved by the Spirit I guess, I kissed the Bible and lifted it to the heavens, as if I were releasing Ernest to God.

Who is Hurt by Executions?

Ernest was scheduled to die in just a few hours, and we still had not heard from the Governor’s counsel.  Why was he waiting so long to tell us his decision?  Was it a good sign?  Maybe he just wanted to wait until the evening news had been put to bed.  Or was it a bad sign?  If it were good news, wouldn’t he want to relieve our pain?    

Around 9:00, John’s phone finally rang. The room fell silent.  It was hard to breathe.  “Yes sir,” I heard John say.  “I understand.  Thank you for your consideration.”  John closed his phone and shook his head.  There would be no clemency.  The shock was palpable.  The wailing began.

This moment may be the hardest moment in death work for an attorney.  The emotional pain is intense.  I could literally feel it in my gut.  Yet, you have responsibilities:  to your client and to your client’s family and others on the legal team who have invested so much in the fight for life.   Thus, you tamp down your own sorrow, to make it through the night.

I headed for Rose, who was sobbing.  She gave me one of her legendary bear hugs.  “I am so sorry,” I said through my own tears.

We needed to tell Ernest.  John, Matthew and I bundled up and walked toward the main building.  When we entered the visiting cell, Ernest was waiting on the other side of the rear door.  Our eyes met, and I tried to crack a smile, while we waited for the steel door between us to slide open.   Ernest stepped in, and John broke the news: “The Governor denied clemency, Ernest.”   Ernest was the only one not crying.  “Don’t worry,” he said as he hugged us.  “I am ready to die. I appreciate all you have done for me.”   

Ernest’s family was standing outside the cell door.  We needed to step out and let them have their final visit.  We would return for ours.

The execution was still three hours away. I wanted to run, to escape, to go anywhere else and weep in private, but there was nowhere to run, at least nowhere with electricity.    When I reached the front door of the prison, I walked past the visitor center straight to the group holding vigil.  Most of the few left were my friends.  I thanked each of them for their support, as I tried not to break down.   

In our last visit with Ernest, he called us his “dream team,” and urged us to “continue the fight.”  I had no plans to witness Ernest’s execution; I had seen enough clients die. Besides, I knew John and Matthew would do it.   But not witnessing made it even harder to say goodbye to Ernest. I would never see him again.  This healthy man was about to be killed.  Before the guards took Ernest away, I hugged him tightly, kissed him on the cheek, and said “I will never forget you.”

The lawyers and family were ushered into the prison mailroom, located downstairs from the execution chamber.  We passed the time by praying, singing and telling stories about Ernest.  At 1:30, the warden came for the witnesses:  John, Matthew, Rose and Ernest’s brother Gerry.   I moved to the couch to sit next to Sonya.  We agreed that she would be my adopted little sis.  As the clock ticked to 2:00 and beyond, I held her and rocked.

At 2:25, Rose burst through the prison mailroom door, looking like she was going to explode.  Her face was beet red and as puffy as a cabbage patch doll.  She was trying to hold in her pain and anger as the tears ran down her cheeks.  John and Matthew didn’t look much better.  Rose blurted out that she wanted to speak to the media.

Still crying, Rose’s pain was obvious as she approached the podium at the 2:30 a.m. press conference in the visitor center.  “I just want you to know, my brother went with courage and dignity,” she pronounced.  “The State of North Carolina did not hurt my brother.  He is in heaven.”  Pointing to her red, puffy face, she added, “this is who the State hurt; they have created more victims.”

The Benefits of Being a Dead Man Walking

Ernest’s family had beaten me to the prison and were already visiting him in small groups by the time I arrived. I circulated among those waiting, to see how each was doing. Eventually, John and Matthew, and even the two law students who had worked on the case, made it to the prison. John had to literally chain-saw his way out of his driveway.

Not wanting to take family time away from Ernest, we lawyers patiently waited for an opportunity to visit with him. After the lunch break, we were given our chance, so we made our way through the gauntlet of steel doors to reach the visitation area.

It is perverse, but the visits on a condemned inmate’s last day on this earth are often some of the most enjoyable of his life. Instead of the usual visits in a small phone booth with no possibility of human touch, leaning down to speak through a grate, visits before an execution bring visitor and inmate together in the same small concrete and glass cell, with full opportunity for talking, laughing, crying and, yes, touching.  All hugs, kisses and touches, however, are closely monitored by a guard in the cell, as well as others monitoring from outside the cell, and thus, must be quick and appropriate. It is like being in a fishbowl or more aptly, a research lab. The inside guard writes down every move made and every word said.

Ernest was in good spirits. He was enjoying his visits and, as with most “dead men walking,” he had been given drugs to relax. Most of the day was lighthearted. After all, there was still hope that Ernest would not be killed that night. We joked about how the Governor should grant clemency because of the weather, if for no other reason.

Darkness set in early. So did hunger. We had put so much energy into getting to the prison that we hadn’t thought about needing to leave it. The students volunteered to venture out in search of food. Though we were in the middle of the city, it took them over two hours to return with food. “We couldn’t find anything open; then we saw a pizza place with its lights on,” Matt reported. “They had a generator and were pumping out the pizzas, but they were low on ingredients.” He opened a box; the sauce was ranch dressing. We dug in.

Outside the prison gate, about a dozen protesters braved the bitter cold and ice to stand vigil. I threw on my coat, hat and gloves and headed up the hill to see if Pat was among them. It was hard to identify anyone; they were all bundled like Eskimos head to toe. Then, I recognized the familiar big purple parka. I grabbed Pat and asked a guard if I could bring him in. The guard stepped aside and let us pass. A banner attached to the fence read: “The death penalty makes us all murderers.”

Execution on Ice

Ernest was scheduled to be executed on December 6, 2002, at 2:00 a.m.  All executions are scheduled for 2:00 a.m. in North Carolina.  Urban legend is that this early morning hour was designated long ago to limit inmate unrest, as well as public demonstration.   Maybe so, but the late hour is brutal on those involved in an execution, especially the witnesses and the family and friends of the inmate.   For those trying to stop the execution, exhaustion mixes with hope to stave off despair.

I awoke on Wednesday, December 4, to a grey sky.  A winter storm was on its way.   I went downstairs and flipped through the Raleigh News & Observer until I got to the latest weather report:

It is not yet officially winter, but the Triangle is bracing for its first brush with icy weather today and Thursday.

Forecasts call for snow and sleet starting by mid-afternoon, changing to a mix of sleet and freezing rain tonight. The storm could produce a quarter-inch of ice or more on roads by Thursday morning, when more rain or freezing rain is expected.[1]

“Great,” I said sarcastically as I recalled my execution mantra: expect the unexpected and roll with it.

My mind began to ponder the possible scenarios.   What would it take for the State of North Carolina to call off the execution?  Maybe the Executioners won’t be able to get to the prison?  Then a panic set in.  What if I can’t get to the prison?   What if my co-counsel, John and Matthew who live even further away, can’t get there?  And what about Ernest’s family?  Eight of his nine brothers and sisters, along with nieces and nephews, planned on being at the prison for their first contact visit with Ernest in a decade.  They would be devastated if they were unable to tell Ernest goodbye, as would I.        

It was raining when I went to bed early on December 4th.  I was awoken in the middle of the night by the sound of tree limbs breaking and transformers blowing.  Our electricity had gone out.  I snuggled closer to Pat in bed and tried not to think what the next 24 hours might bring.

When I woke again, the sun had risen.  I blew into the air and saw my breath.  I sat up, looked out the window, and saw a winter wonderland.  Everything in sight was covered with ice.

Unbeknownst to us, we were experiencing an ice storm of historic proportions.   New records were set across the Carolinas and Virginia on power outages and their durations, traffic accidents, school closing durations, and fatalities resulting from an extreme weather event.  Some dubbed it “Hugo on Ice” because the storm broke the previous record for regional power outages set by Hurricane Hugo in 1989.  Raleigh recorded the most freezing rain from a single storm since 1948, more than doubling its previous record for freezing rain totals. [1] OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Pat went downstairs to turn on the gas fireplace and stove to give us a little relief from the arctic air.  I checked my cell phone.  No service.  I could not communicate with my co-counsel, the prison or Rose.  All I knew to do was to strike out for the prison.

Thanks to a gas water heater, I was able to take a hot shower before putting on layers of clothing.   I pulled on my hiking boots and carefully slid to the car.  Pat stayed behind to care for his elderly mother and our dogs.

My slow 30 mile trek to the prison took me through a surreal white landscape.  Those trees that were not snapped into pieces were arched to the ground by the weight of the ice.  It was lonely on the road, which was a good thing: fewer things to hit or to be hit by.

There were no signs of electricity, until I reached the prison.  As I pulled into the
de-iced driveway leading to the visitor center, planted between the road and the prison, I saw the lights on inside. “Damn. I guess they are up to an execution.”



Begging the Governor (Ernest Basden Part 3)

The final stop of our tour was at the Governor’s Office, just a couple of days before the impending execution.  John, Matthew and I, along with former NC Supreme Court Justice Harry Martin, who had become a supporter of Ernest’s cause, met in the rotunda of the North Carolina Capitol.  We were joined by Rose, Denny, Sonya and Ernest’s older brother Leonard.  As we waited, I saw the lawyers from the Attorney General’s Office arrive.  They were there to meet with the Governor as well, to argue for going forward with the execution.

The North Carolina state capitol building (DaveCrosby/Flickr).

I had been in this inner sanctum twice before, once before Easley.  Two years earlier, Larry Moore and I had sat in the same room and urged Easley to commute the death sentence of Willie Fisher.  The Governor was not convinced, and Willie was executed.   I wondered if the Governor remembered that meeting, as I smiled and shook his hand.The Governor took his seat behind his desk; I quickly assessed the most appropriate seat for me.  One by one we argued as lawyers do for sparing a man’s life, a perverse conversation that should never be had.  We then brought in the family.

Rose did not hesitate.  She stepped up to the Governor and pleaded for mercy for her brother.   Leonard summed it up, “The judicial system in this just hasn’t been fair.  The man without money is the one on death row.”[1]  The Governor looked uncomfortable.  Our time was up.

As I passed the Governor going out the door, he shook my hand and said “Good luck.”  “Luck?  What does luck have to do with this?” I screamed to myself.