2017-09-07 13:26:09 UTC
We helped free 2 death row innocents, but others are at risk
It has been 3 years since we watched our client, Henry McCollum, walk free
after spending 30 years on North Carolina's death row.
There was never any physical evidence connecting Henry or his brother, Leon
Brown, to the horrifying crime for which they were sentenced to death. They
were intellectually-disabled teenagers with no history of violence, who were
tricked into confessing to a crime they had nothing to do with. But their
innocence was stubbornly hard to prove, until DNA testing finally linked
another man to the murder.
Their exoneration made headlines across North Carolina and the world. We were
interviewed on national news shows and contacted by filmmakers. The governor
granted a rare pardon of innocence. Now that the hoopla has faded, we are left
asking: What did we learn from this miscarriage of justice?
For us, the lesson is in how the death penalty distorts our justice system.
Even now that no one has been executed in North Carolina for 11 years, people
are still being tried capitally and sentenced to death. And the death penalty
is still threatening innocent people.
Consider how it played out in Henry's case. On the night of his arrest, law
enforcement interrogated 19-year-old Henry for hours and threatened him with
the death penalty if he did not confess. They told him his only way out was to
sign a detailed confession, which they wrote for him. They did the same to his
15-year-old brother Leon.
Under that pressure, they broke and signed false confessions, unwittingly
giving prosecutors the evidence they needed to try them for their lives. This
was before we had laws requiring police to record confessions - a modern reform
intended to prevent wrongful convictions.
Their trial attorneys might have spent more time investigating Henry and Leon's
claims of innocence, had they not been desperate to save their clients' lives.
They might have looked into a similar crime, committed in the same small town
just a few weeks later, and discovered the real killer.
Instead, facing long odds and working in a state that at the time had one of
the nation's highest death sentencing rates, they pushed Henry and Leon to
confess again. The attorneys hoped that their clients' cooperation would
persuade the jury to spare their lives. Leon's attorneys eventually got him off
death row, but Henry's couldn't.
When we began working on Henry's case in 1994, he told us he was innocent. But
we were faced with these facts: Our client had signed a grisly, detailed
confession and was at imminent risk of execution. We focused our energy on
legal arguments we felt had the best chance of keeping him out of the execution
chamber, which meant we emphasized proving his intellectual disability above
proving his innocence.
It took the involvement of the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission, which matched
DNA on a 30-year-old cigarette butt to a serial rapist, to finally prove Henry
and Leon's innocence. Had the killer not dropped that single cigarette at the
crime scene, Henry and Leon would still be in prison. Henry would still be on
The fact is, the death penalty makes the conviction of innocent people more
likely by putting them under greater pressure to confess. Even today, innocent
people continue to admit to crimes just to avoid the death penalty. People with
mental illness, among those most vulnerable to false confessions, continue to
be tried for their lives.
The death penalty also distorts juries. Only jurors who support the death
penalty are allowed to serve in capital trials, which studies show creates
juries that are more likely to convict. Prosecutors continue to
disproportionately exclude African-Americans from capital juries, although
diverse juries have been proven to make better decisions.
Some improvements have been made since Henry and Leon were wrongly convicted.
For example, confessions are now recorded, and police lineups are conducted
according to guidelines intended to discourage false identifications.
However, 3/4 of our state's 144 death row inmates were sentenced at least 15
years ago, before those reforms took effect. They were sentenced during an era
when, instead of sending one new person a year to death row, we sent dozens -
some of whom were innocent.
As we mark this anniversary, we are grateful that Henry and Leon are free.
However, we cannot forget that innocent people will remain at risk until the
death penalty is wiped off the books.
Ken Rose and Vernetta Alston are attorneys who represented Henry McCollum.
(source: opinion, News & Observer)
Georgia schedules its 2nd execution of 2017
A warrant was signed Wednesday scheduling the execution of a 59-year-old man
for the 1990 murder of his sister-in-law.
Keith Leroy Tharpe is scheduled to die at 7 p.m. on Sept. 26 for shooting
Jaquelin Freeman 3 times after stopping her and his estranged wife as they
drove to work.
If Tharpe is executed, he will be only the 2nd man Georgia has put to death
this year, unlike 2016 when the state executed a record 9 murderers.
The last person Georgia executed was J.W. Ledford, Jr. who died by lethal
injection at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Center in Jackson on May
17. Ledford had killed an elderly physician and neighbor, Harry Buchanan
Johnston, in 1991.
In Tharpe's case, his sister-in-law's murder in Jones County in Middle Georgia,
came several weeks after his wife left him and their violent marriage.
In a phone call almost a month after Tharpe's wife moved in with her mother, he
told her if she wanted to "play dirty," he would show her "what dirty was."
A month after that call, Tharpe followed through despite a court order
prohibiting him from having any contact with his ex-wife or her family
Tharpe stopped the sisters on the way out of their car. He shot the 29-year-old
Freeman 3 times and then kidnapped his estranged wife, later raping her in the
car on the side of the road.
Tharpe was caught because he had driven his ex-wife to Macon to withdraw funds
from her credit union. She called police instead.
At his death penalty trial, which came just over 3 months after the murder, 13
witnesses - his mother, sister, 2 of his daughters, and even the ex-wife he
assaulted - described Tharpe as a good son, brother, father and husband who was
emotionally distressed because his marriage was ending.
Tharpe's lawyers tried to portray him as deserving of mercy because he was a
good guy who made a mistake due to being emotionally fraught.
At the same time, mental health experts for both Tharpe and prosecutors
testified otherwise. His own expert said Tharpe was a "mean son of a bitch."
As recently as June, his lawyers tried to get his conviction overturned on the
basis because of racial prejudices.
According to court filings, one juror told lawyers after the trial that African
Americans were either "good black folks" or "n.....s." The juror went on to
explain, the motion said, that Freeman's family was "nice black folks" and if
they "had been the type Tharpe is, then picking between life or death for
Tharpe wouldn't have mattered as much."
While Georgia law bars jurors' testimony from being used to overturn a verdict,
the U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that the prohibition didn???t
apply if attorneys could show racial bias affected a verdict.
(source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Execution set for Georgia man who killed his sister-in-law
A Georgia death row inmate convicted of killing his sister-in-law 27 years ago
is set for execution later this month.
Department of Corrections Commissioner Gregory C. Dozier on Wednesday said
Keith Leroy Tharpe is scheduled to die Sept. 26 at the state prison in Jackson.
The 59-year-old inmate was convicted in the Sept. 25, 1990 shooting death of
A Georgia Supreme Court case summary says Tharpe stopped his estranged wife and
her sister-in-law as they drove to work and ordered them out of the car. He
then took Freeman to the rear of his vehicle and killed her.
Tharpe's attorneys had asked a federal judge to reopen his case, saying a
juror's racial bias "impermissibly influenced the imposition of his death
sentence." A judge Tuesday declined to do so.
(source: Daily Journal)
Man decides to be his own attorney in death penalty case
After firing his attorneys today and getting Judge Maureen Sweeney to agree to
appoint him out of town counsel in his death penalty case, Lance Hundley
decided to represent himself.
Hundley's trial, with orientation for jurors set for Friday in Mahoning County
Common Pleas Court, is still on schedule after 2 hearings which clearly
exsparated the judge.
Hundley, 47, of Washington Street, Warren, or Cleveland Street, Youngstown, is
accused of beating Erika Huff, 41, to death, beating her mother and setting her
house on fire.
He could face the death penalty if convicted.
Holly Bobo: What to expect in a death penalty trial
Mississippi College of Law Professor Matthew Steffey talks about what to expect
in a death penalty case. The Holly Bobo case trial is expected to begin on
Monday, Sept. 11.
After more than 3 years, Zachary Adams is scheduled to stand trial in the death
of Holly Bobo, a Decatur County nursing student who was abducted from her home
Adams is facing the death penalty in Bobo's death, and if convicted, he would
be the 1st person to receive a death sentence in Hardin County.
But despite the stakes, Adams' trial will start like any other.
"It wouldn't be a death penalty case if the underlying case weren't horrific,
caused a loss of life with special aggravating circumstances," said Matthew
Steffey, a law professor at Mississippi College. "The penalty is the maximum
penalty that can be imposed."
Steffey practiced law before becoming a professor at the college's School of
Law in Jackson, Mississippi. He said through the two-part trial, the procedures
are essentially the same.
"The real differences come in at the penalty phase. I say exactly, but there's
a few minor differences procedurally, and in a death penalty case the defendant
is usually entitled to more peremptory challenges, which are challenges without
explanation," he said.
In death penalty cases, defendants usually are allowed an additional attorney
and have access to more resources for defense teams to hire experts. In the
Bobo case, Adams is represented by Jennifer Thompson and James Simmons.
His defense team has already filed a notice of 2 experts - 1 in handwriting and
1 in cell phones.
With opening statements set for Monday, Steffey said the presentation of
evidence in the case will go on like any other trial, all the way until the
jury decides a verdict of guilt or innocence.
"That becomes a very different kind of hearing," he said. "The prosecution will
put on aggravating evidence, including, perhaps, past crimes. The defense will
put on mitigating evidence, which may mean the defendant's backstory. Maybe
abuse sometimes, or mental or emotional illness that doesn't rise to a legal
Other examples of mitigating factors could include family, religion, or other
"That adds, generally speaking, about a week - give or take - to a trial. Of
course, it could be more if there's a particularly complicated history with the
defendant; it could be less," Steffey said.
In previous hearings, prosecutors said they have about 200 witnesses they could
potentially call to testify. Defense attorneys have said they expect their side
of the case to last about a week.
Prosecutors have also said they have more than 400 pieces of evidence to submit
"Just a high number (of witnesses and evidence) isn't probably a real good
indicator," Steffey said. "The trial may be just a whole lot of little things,
which the defense essentially stipulates that they are what they are."
While presenting evidence and sending the case to a jury to decide guilt or
innocence could take more than 2 weeks, Steffey said the trial could last up to
3 or 4 weeks.
Through the beginning of the trial, Steffey said both families should expect to
see more legal proceedings - final jury selection, pretrial motions, swearing
in the final jury - before opening statements begin Monday morning.
"You're going to hear the description of a horrific crime. I think in this case
there will be a lot of talk about what happened when the victim was last seen
leaving her home," Steffey said. "I think there will be a lot of testimony - a
lot of heart-wrenching testimony - about that."
Family members of Holly Bobo and Zachary Adams have been subpoenaed for the
trial. A codefendant, Jason Autry, has received federal immunity and the
possibility of reduced charges at the state level to testify against Adams.
"I think that, to get an insider's view, will be a compelling moment," Steffey
If a jury finds Adams guilty of the felony murder, kidnapping and rape of Holly
Bobo, the jury will then start the 2nd part of the trial - determining if Adams
will receive life with the possibility of parole, life without parole, or the
"What it turns to in the penalty phase is 'does the defendant deserve to die?'
It turns into a very different kind of courtroom exercise - one where the
burden is removed from the rules of evidence and the rules of everybody shifts
slightly," Steffey said.
Jury selection in the trial is scheduled to begin Saturday in Hardin County.
Possibly mistaken execution won't end family's pain, chaos
Regarding Laura Friedman's Aug. 31 op-ed ("Chaos, not closure, for family of
Let me say at the outset that I cannot begin to imagine the horror that Dr.
Daniel Picus went through when his 1st wife was murdered. I am also sure that
the murder weighs heavily in his current marriage; I would venture to say as a
social worker that it always will, regardless of whether anyone is ever
executed. And I am more sorry than I can express that our justice system
operates in such a slow and ponderous way that the question of who killed Lisha
Gayle is still not reliably determined almost 20 years later.
But from what I have read about this case, I think Ms. Friedman errs in her
confidence that everything about the handling and the determining of Marcellus
Williams' guilt was straightforward and without flaw. For example, clearly many
things were not done by the police, including testing and preservation of
evidence, that should have been done. This was a high-profile case, and it
appears possible that it was mishandled in the rush to convict someone.
There is now serious doubt about Mr. Williams' guilt, and surely that needs to
be resolved before anything as irrevocable as the death penalty is carried out.
Truly, would Ms. Friedman feel that the situation was resolved if he were to be
executed and it was then found that someone else had murdered Ms. Gayle?
(source: Letter to the Editor, St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
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