In Memory of Darryl Hunt

I am saddened to learn of the death of Darryl Hunt.  On Sunday, he was found dead, slumped over in his car in a shopping center parking lot in Winston-Salem, NC.  The immediate cause of his death has not yet been released, but who can doubt what lies at the root of the cause — state-induced trauma.

In 1984, Darryl was accused and convicted of a murder and rape that he did not commit.  Despite the lack of any credible evidence, Darryl spent almost 20 years in prison for these crimes.  The State of North Carolina sought a death sentence but fell short of its goal; a good thing since Darryl would likely have been executed by the time DNA and a subsequent confession by the killer proved, to even the most ardent doubters, that Darryl was indeed actually innocent.  His journey of injustice is captured in the documentary The Trials of Darryl Hunt.

As a young lawyer, I observed Darryl’s numerous loses in court from a distance.  I knew his appellate attorneys and saw them build a stronger and stronger legal case showing that an innocent man had been wrongfully convicted.  I felt their — and my — hopes for justice rise at each stage of review, only to have judge after judge deny relief.   A DNA test exonerated Darryl of the rape in 1994, yet his request for a new trial was denied.  It would be another 10 years, when the actual killer was identified, before a judge would order a new trial and, ultimately, release.

I was fortunate to cross paths with Darryl a few times after his release.  He was always humble, polite and giving.  When I invited him to speak to my small Access to Justice class at Charlotte School of Law, he was glad to do so, despite requiring a long drive at night.   As he had done for so many others, he showed my students and me amazing grace in the face of extraordinary loss.  His peaceful presence and advocacy for others after prison stands as a testament to how forgiveness is a much more desirable path than anger and resentment.

Nonetheless, no man can be carefree after losing 20 years of freedom because of racial bias and institutional arrogance, waiting day after day for those in power to hear his pleas of innocence.  The stress Darryl suffered in prison, and then the stress suffered adjusting to the “real” world, must have taken an extreme toll on his body and mind.  I am not surprised to learn that he suffered from both cancer and depression.   Perhaps he was living under a death sentence after all.

 

 

 

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Lethal Injections

P1040474On Saturday, I awoke to find my old black lab Macey in a bad way.  Pat and I knew this day was coming; we just hoped there would be a clear sign.  Now there was.  It was time to help Macey “crossover” to greener pastures, where she could once again roam free . . . to rummage through trash cans, one of her favorite activities.   At least that was the image I chose to hold onto to get me through the next few hours.

The employees at the vet hospital were very accommodating.  I arrived unexpectedly a couple of hours before they closed for the weekend.  “Don’t worry.  We can work her in.”

Macey was in the back of our Honda Element.  It had been a struggle to get her there.  Macey had lost the use of her back legs, but I had managed to pull/drag her out of the house and lift her to the very spot where she now rested.  (Pat was out of town.)

Now, I had help.  The aide and I struggled to get Macey onto a stretcher and strap her down so she wouldn’t fall off.  Then she was carried off to the back of the hospital to be “triaged.”  I was not allowed to be with her.  Instead, I was shuttled into an exam room, to wait . . . alone.

I tried to call Pat on my cell but could not reach him.  So, I just waited.  Thankfully, it wasn’t long before the door opened.  Two women entered with Macey on the stretcher.  She seemed to float in, on a magic carpet, partly covered with a comfy quilt.

I was thrilled to see Macey looking like her old self, even as she confusedly looked around the room.  I noticed a port taped to her front leg.  The aides sat the stretcher on the floor and left us alone to visit until the doctor was available.  Macey was never much into being touched, except in certain spots.  So I massaged those places, as I reassured her that all would be ok.  “I am ready,” she seemed to say.

Macey was over 14 years old, old for a lab.  We adopted her six years ago as a companion dog to our blind dog, Whitey.  Macey’s health had been declining for a while.  She had lung cancer, though a nerve disorder is what had brought her down.  Macey had rallied for the holidays, though, and that meant a lot to the family.

The vet entered the room, gently interrupting our visit.  She made a point to assure me that I was doing the right thing.   “It is best for Macey and that is what matters most,” she said.  I felt ready.

“Have you gone through this before,” the vet asked.  I nodded.  I couldn’t help think about it, in the same hospital, with Whitey.  “Okay, I have a syringe in my pocket,” the vet said as she reached toward her lab coat pocket.   “She will just go to sleep.”

WHOA . . . .  Not so fast.  “I don’t want to be here for that,” I blurted out.  “Sorry, I wasn’t sure,” she replied.  I was flooded with mixed emotions.  I knew I couldn’t stay, but I feared I sounded uncaring.  I looked to the doctor for direction, and she came through.  “I will leave the room.  You can say your goodbyes to Macey and then just leave.  I will take care of the rest.”   She then hugged me and left Macey and me alone.  I took a deep breath.

“Bye girl,” I said as I rubbed Macey in her special spots.  “You have been a great dog.  Everything is going to be fine.”  Tears were running down my face.  Not wanting other dog owners to see my upset, I raced through the waiting room and left alone in our Honda Element.

Perhaps it is common for pet parents to not stay with their animals being put down.  I don’t know, but I was angry that I could not.

I am a capital defense attorney and have witnessed the execution of four clients.

Zane, Willie, Steve and Timmy were all strapped down to a stretcher with a baby blue blanket pulled to their chins.  I never saw the tubes that I knew were inserted into their skin.  Separated by a thick window, I kept my eyes on each of their faces, trying to provide whatever comfort I could.  I sat there staring at Zane, Willie, Steve and Timmy, mouthing words of comfort and smiling.  All the while knowing that they were being poisoned to death — or as some like to think of it, being “put him to sleep.”

Yet I could not be there for my dog.  Witnessing those executions has left me vulnerable to traumatic stress reactions.  My first time was stepping up to have my own blood drawn, months after Zane’s execution.  The discomfort is less about the images and more about the flood of emotions:  the paralysis, the helplessness.  It is a state of mind one avoids if possible.  And on Saturday, I did.

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 Ripples of Trauma from Sandy Hook

Hearing the news about the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre last Friday triggered deep emotional pain across America and the world, even though few of us knew anyone close to those murdered.   Parents with young children held them tighter.  Children said prayers for the children lost.  In a darker place, many who have experienced loss through gun violence began to re-live their own trauma.

The ripple effects of senseless violence are long and deep.  Psychological trauma hits the hardest those caught in the immediate splash – the witnesses, the survivors (those closest to the event and the victim), and the perpetrator (assuming he or she lives).  The trauma spreads to friends of the survivors and of the perpetrator and to those who hear details about the killing.   It also spreads over time to those who later get to know the survivors and the perpetrator.

I have never had a loved one lost to gun violence or even murder, though my husband’s sister was murdered long before I knew him.  But as a lawyer, I have represented and have grown close to clients who have killed and then been killed by state execution.   I have heard things no one should hear and have seen things that no one should see.   The psychological trauma has taken its toll.

One of the consequences of psychological trauma is that its dysfunctions can re-emerge at any time, overwhelming your mental functioning.  You never know when the symptoms will be triggered.

I was running errands on Friday, when I first heard about a shooting at an elementary school.  Instinctively I knew it best to wait until I got home to learn more.  When I did, an overwhelming sadness enveloped me, and it has not lifted.  Thoughts of one of my executed clients, Steve McHone, and his family suddenly crowded my mind.  I write in hopes of stopping the flood.

Steve’s story is similar to Adam Lanza’s story though certainly different in magnitude.   Steve was the same age of Adam when he committed his crimes; he had just turned 20.  In the middle of the night in the idyllic town of Mount Airy, NC, Steve shot and killed his mother in their backyard and his step-father in the kitchen, before he was stopped by his half-brother.

Steve suffered from mental illnesses, which he had self-medicated with alcohol and drugs since the age of 12.  Steve had violent outbursts, once chasing his mother, Mildred, around the kitchen with a knife.  Mildred tried several times to get him psychological help, but the actual treatment he received was minimal.

On June 2nd, 1990, the perfect storm came together – alcohol, severe depression, conflict and guns.  Steve went to a party, got drunk, and got a gun from his family camper.  He fought with friends at the party but nothing came of it.   By the time he got home after midnight, Steve was distraught, threatening suicide.  He fought with his parents and was sent to his room to sleep it off.

In his basement room, Steve drank more and called his AA sponsor for help.  The sponsor did not come.  Steve went into the backyard with his pistol, most likely with the intent to kill himself.  Mildred was concerned about her son and made her way to the backyard too, with thoughts of removing the gun from the family camper, unaware of the fact that Steve already had it in his grips.

No one knows the details of the interaction of mother and son that night, but it ended with Steve shooting his mother.  Steve’s step-father, Wesley, ran to the scene, disarmed Steve and dragged him into the kitchen.  Wesley left Steve alone long enough for Steve to run to the bedroom and get a shotgun kept in the corner.

By this time Steve’s half-brother, Junior, was present.   Steve shot at Junior, but Wesley intervened and was shot dead.  Steve was subdued by Junior, who Steve begged to kill him.   Impressively, Junior, with both his parents dead, did not oblige.

The State was less restrained.  Steve was executed by the State of North Carolina on November 11, 2005, at the age of 35, fifteen years after his crimes.   I witnessed his pre-meditated killing.   I also witnessed the trauma suffered by three of his four siblings who had forgiven Steve and who had begged the Governor in vain to stop the execution.  So, goes the circle of violence and the traumatization.

I bristle when I hear people suggest that more guns in the home and in the schools are the answer to our country’s problem of violence.   I also bristle when I hear people suggest that we must arm ourselves to protect us from criminals.   I have met these criminals and they are us.  They are our brothers, our husbands, and our sons.   They are also our friends and our neighbors.

It is easy to be overwhelmed by the pain and grief caused by Adam Lanza, but we must not become paralyzed.  We all have much work to do in our own backyards:  to become more knowledgeable and understanding about mental illness, to become more perceptive of those in psychological distress, and for all our sakes, to remove guns from easy reach of those in distress.

Mass Killing

The horror was spread all over local and national T.V., radio and newspapers.  Friday night shooting spree by Fort Bragg soldier in Fayetteville restaurant kills four and injures many more!   The more I heard, the worse my heart broke.  I had a deep sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.   By Sunday, a surprising amount of details were known about the victims, the gunman, and the killing spree.   “A Night of Terror, Heroes” screamed the banner headline of the Fayetteville Observer-Times.

On Friday, August 7, 1993, around 10 p.m., Sergeant Kenneth Junior French, 22, drove to a popular, locally owned restaurant, Luigi’s in his black pick-up truck.   He parked in front of the restaurant, got out with two 12-guage shotguns and a .22-caliber rifle.  He was wearing a hunting vest filled with ammunition.  French walked around the outside of the restaurant, which was full of customers, and shot out each of the four windows on the side.  He then returned to his truck and left one shotgun and the rifle.

French walked to the back of the restaurant and entered the back door with his remaining shotgun.  He shot a cook (who survived) and entered the dining room shooting.  The owners of the restaurant, Pete and Ethel Parrous, had been sitting at a booth with their daughter, Connie, and her husband, Tony.  They all were now hiding under the table.   But, as the local newspaper put it, “Mr. Parrous couldn’t just hide under the table.”  Here is Connie’s account of the events as told the day after the tragedy to the Fayetteville Observer-Times:

“Then my dad stood up and said, ‘Oh please don’t hurt us.’  Before you knew it, he’d blown his face away.  My mother freaked out and got up and tried to get him.  They were very close.  She went to him, and that’s when the creep got her, too.

“We were trying to get him (dad), to see if we could help him, but he was already gone,” she said.  “We were all just sitting in a pool of blood.”

French fired at Connie and Tony under the table, hitting Connie in the thigh.

For some 20 minutes, French wandered around the restaurant taking aim at customers.  At times, he ranted about gays in the military.  Witnesses reported him yelling “I’ll show you about gays in the military” and “I’ll show you, Clinton.”   French shot and killed Wes Cover, a former soldier, who dove to shield his pregnant fiancée, and James Kidd, who did the same to shield his son, a soldier.  French periodically stopped to reload his pump shotgun.  He fired about 20 shots.  French’s rampage ended when he was shot by a police officer.  French survived.

It was clear from the news accounts that the Parrouses were beloved by all and well known in the community, particularly the Greek community.  Their senseless deaths would no doubt cause widespread trauma and outrage.  There was also no doubt that Mr. French would be facing the death penalty.