Meeting Ernest and his family

Ernest had been executed just the day before, on December 6, 2002, at 2:00 a.m.  I did not witness Ernest’s execution, the only time I have not witnessed the execution of a client.  Seeing Rose’s face after she witnessed her brother’s execution was witness sufficient for me.   When Rose walked through the prison mailroom door around 2:25, she looked like she was going to explode.  Her face was beet red and as puffy as a cabbage patch doll.  I could tell she was trying to hold in her pain and anger as the tears ran down her cheeks.

Rose and I had grown close over the years.   I first met her brother Ernest at Central Prison on February 2, 1995.  When I explained who I was and my role as resource counsel, Ernest immediately directed me to Rose.  She had been Ernest’s tireless advocate since his arrest.  Ernest assured me that Rose was the keeper of all the information I sought.

Rose and her husband, Denny, lived in the small town of Kinston, about a two hour drive from my office in Durham.  On June 15, they made the trek to meet with me and my boss, Henderson.  Rose and Denny were pleasant, educated working class folk.  Rose was the most engaged and vocal of the two.  Her passion for justice for her brother seeped from every pore.  Rose explained how things had gone wrong with her brother and with his trial.  She and Denny had been all over the state in their quest to assist Ernest.  He was quite fortunate to have such supportive family advocates, a rarity in the dysfunctional families from which my clients originate.

Henderson explained how I had been assigned to Ernest as resource counsel.  My commitment was to shepherd Ernest’s case through the system after his direct appeal to insure that competent attorneys were appointed in post-conviction proceedings, to support those attorneys with my (growing) expertise in capital post-conviction litigation, and to step in whenever needed to protect Ernest’s rights.   I explained the status of Ernest’s case.  His appeal was sitting in the US Supreme Court in the form of a Petition for Writ of Certiorari.  It was inevitable that the Court would deny it.  We were hopeful that the Court would not deny it before they closed for the summer break at the end of June, pushing a decision into the fall.

Just a few days later, our hopes were dashed.  We received the order from the Supreme Court – Cert Denied.   This decision meant an execution date would be set.  I dreaded telling Ernest and his family, but faxed a letter to the prison asking for an “attorney visit.”

I drove to the thirty miles to the prison two days later.  I was pleasantly surprised to see on the sign-in sheet that Rose and Denny were visiting with Ernest.   After going through the gauntlet of guards and doors, I stepped into the ghost elevator, which is what I call the prison elevator with buttons that don’t work and which “mysteriously” takes you to your designated floor.

The guard on the visitation unit directed me to the booth in which Ernest, Rose and Denny sat, with a concrete and glass wall between them, of course.  I squeezed into the small phone booth size room with Rose and Denny and bent down to speak into the small metal grate that allows sound to travel to the inmate’s side of the booth.   “I have some bad news, Ernest.  The Supreme Court denied review of your case.”  I stopped to gauge his reaction.   Thankfully, Ernest understood that this loss was coming and that we were prepared to move into the next phase of litigation; but in death penalty work, the victories are often measured in time, and we had just lost three months.  Ernest seemed at peace.  He had faith in God, in his family and in me, even though he barely knew me.

Rose and Denny looked at me to gauge my reaction.  I was disappointed, but I smiled.  There was a lot to do, but Ernest already had a strong team in the three of us.

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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.

Who, us?

On the Monday after the Luigi’s night of horror, there was a pall over the Resource Center.   The ripples set in motion by the murders were already being felt two hours away by people who didn’t know the victims or the killer.   My colleagues and I gathered in Henderson’s office hoping to learn more about the killings and the latest about Mr. French.

For capital defenders, a high-profile killing is a shock to the system.   You battle — day in and day out — the hate directed at your clients and at you, a more accessible surrogate for your clients.  You battle the misperceptions of the causes of crime and the efficacy of the death penalty as anything other than a blood-letting.   Some days you battle your client who would rather die than live on death row, and some days you battle your own feelings of inadequacy.  Then, the news of another killing grabs your attention.  You know in the pit of your stomach that for you and your clients, the news is not good.

There was a buzz in the room.  The State had already charged Kenneth French with four counts of murder and three counts of attempted murder.  They had already held French’s probable cause hearing in his hospital room.

Henderson interrupted the chatter, “Jim Parrish will be representing Kenneth French.” Jim was a well-respected criminal defense attorney in Fayetteville.   “And I have been asked to co-counsel,” he added.

It had not occurred to me that our office would get involved in the case.  Our primary mission was to improve the legal representation of prisoners already on death row.  However, we all knew that it would be good for our team to get involved in a trial — if for no other reason to gain the experience to help us in attorney consultations and in attacking them on appeal.  In a sense, we needed our “street cred.”

At first there was silence; then, one by one the attorneys and the investigators stated their willingness to help.  “Count me in,” I said.

The Newness of It

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.

NC Killing Machinery 201

The North Carolina Supreme Court reviews every death sentence on direct appeal to make sure there is no prejudicial legal error.  If it finds no error on the record in a case, the condemned inmate can proceed to the second level of appeals.  The purpose of this level of review is to give state courts the opportunity to correct a death sentence obtained unlawfully or unconstitutionally based on facts not known by the defendant at trial.  This level is called “post-conviction” litigation.  Errors sometimes uncovered at this level include poor lawyering of trial counsel, prosecutorial misconduct, and juror misconduct.

Post-conviction defense attorneys investigate what happened at trial to insure that death sentences obtained unlawfully are brought to the attention of the court.   These attorneys also carry forward to the federal courts any legal or fact-based issues raised before the state courts for the third and final level of appeals.   This level insures that inmates have access to federal review when they are asserting that their state has unlawfully obtained a death sentence.   It is very rare, however, for an inmate to find relief in federal court, because the court gives great deference to the decisions of state courts.

It is at this level of appeals I have worked since beginning deathwork in 1993.  I entered the realm of post-conviction litigation at a time that was both exhilarating and mind-numbingly depressing.  It was exhilarating because the need for good legal representation was significant, and there was no question my work was needed.  It was depressing because, well, prisoners were being executed.  But it was mind-numbingly depressing because the death penalty system (a.k.a. the machinery of death) had not been cranked up to such a high degree since the 1940s, when “The War” taught us that gassing those viewed as less than human was an atrocity.

I became one of five lawyers at the North Carolina Resource Center.  This organization was created in 1985 with funding from lawyers and then expanded a few years later with state and federal funding.  The purpose of the agency was “’to identify, recruit, and assist attorneys representing prisoners under sentence of death in NC after direct appeal to the NC Supreme Court; and to act as a clearinghouse for the identification of legal issues that arise in those cases, to help insure that the prisoner receives adequate representation.’”

The Center was part of a network of federal resource centers in death penalty states created after the federal judiciary expressed grave concerns about the quality of representation of death row inmates.  The judiciary’s concerns were validated in 1990 when the American Bar Association issued a report concluding that “’the inadequacy and inadequate compensation of counsel at trial’” was one of the “’principal failings of the capital punishment systems in the states today.’” The report contained numerous examples of flagrant misconduct by defense attorneys in capital cases.  (I. Robbins, Toward a More Just and Effective System of Review in State Death Penalty Cases, Report of the American Bar Association’s Recommendations Concerning Death Penalty Habeas Corpus, 40 American U. Law Rev. 1 (1990))