The five attorneys at the North Carolina Resource Center were a bit like the “mod squad.” There was our fearless leader, Henderson Hill, black male from New York City. Henderson had never engaged in capital defense work before coming to North Carolina but was an experienced public defender trained in one of the best offices in the country, Public Defense Services in Washington, D.C. Marshall Dayan, Jewish male from Georgia, was a long time death penalty activist and the only one of us with experience in deathwork. The remaining three of us — Gretchen Engel, Jim Moreno, and I — were not long out of law school. Intelligence, drive and commitment were what we brought to the table.
We initially received a lot of resistance from the bar. Local judges had the appointing power in death cases, and many of them wanted local attorneys to get the capital court-appointed work – no matter the level of experience or interest of those attorneys. Our office was located in Durham, one of the more progressive cities in North Carolina. Very few death sentences came out of Durham and neighboring Chapel Hill. We were considered “outsiders,” coming in from the big city, no doubt to make trouble.
What seemed like overnight, we were appearing in courts across the state asking for stays of execution for inmates who had been sentenced to death by local jurors, at trials overseen by the very judges who we were now standing before. “Tell me again who you are and what gives you the authority to make such a request?” was a common refrain from the clearly displeased judges.
To be fair, all of us were feeling our way through the system. Post-conviction litigation was new to most everyone. It rarely happens in non-death penalty cases, and there had been few capital cases to make it that far. When I entered the work in 1993, only six of the over 130 prisoners sentenced to death in the modern era had exhausted all of their state post-conviction and federal habeas appeals. Of these, five had been executed:
- James Hutchins, 3/16/84;
- Velma Barfield, 11/2/84 (the first woman in the country to be executed);
- John Rook, 9/19/86;
- Michael McDougall, 10/18/91; and
- John Gardner, 10/23/92.
The other, Anson Maynard, had been saved from the executioner by Governor James Martin on 1/13/92 because of Maynard’s possible innocence. Henderson was lead counsel on that effort. Not a bad start for a rookie.