Monday, July 19, 2010

NORTH CAROLINA: A moral debt to innocent, former death row inmates

JULY 18, 2010:

The state of North Carolina condemned 7 men to die who were later exonerated and has denied them any compensation. We owe them.

Glen Chapman, Alan Gell, Jonathon Hoffman, Levon Jones, Samuel Poole, Alfred Rivera and Christopher Spicer spent nearly 5 decades on North Carolina's death row and in our prisons for murders and other crimes they did not commit. They were condemned to die in your name and mine.

Most of these cases involve serious and unlawful breaches of the trust and duties bestowed on court officers and law enforcement personnel. These exonerated were condemned after police or prosecutors unlawfully withheld, lost or destroyed evidence or made deals with or paid jailhouse snitches.

It appears that even though six of the seven exonerees are African-American and African-Americans compose 22 % of the state's population, most of the juries of the exonerees' "peers" were all white or nearly all white.

Some cases involve reversible errors by judges or ineffective assistance by defense counsel.

The innocent are often exonerated in spite of the system, not because of it. Alan Gell is alive today in part because he had the good fortune that the News & Observer in Raleigh decided to investigate his case, apparently suspicious of his claims of innocence.

Instead, the paper's investigation showed Gell could not have committed the murder in his case. Even so, ostensibly trying to save political face, N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper refused to drop the charges and re-tried the case, spending tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars, only to have a jury quickly find Gell not guilty.

After nearly everything, including their lives, was taken from these men they were released with only the clothes on their backs. No transition. No help. No apology. No money.


People guilty of serious violent crimes get more help when they are released.

How can we allow this to happen?

Sure, innocent people are charged, tried and acquitted often, and the state is under no obligation to pay them. But these men were condemned to be poisoned to death in the dark of night in Central Prison in Raleigh after wasting away for years on death row. A disturbing number of their cases involve malice or negligence on the part of authorities, none of whom has ever faced criminal charges.

State prosecutors and investigators in Gell's case withheld mounds of evidence that he could not have committed the crime. Gell sued the state in civil court and won a settlement of $3.9 million.

The thing about our death penalty system is that some of those who get entrapped in it are not Boy Scouts. Some, like Gell, had criminal records. A few exonerees have ended up back in prison, when it is arguable that if they had not been left penniless they would not have turned to crime or drugs or alcohol to deal with their suffering -- suffering which we imposed on them. Presumed innocent until proven guilty is the hallmark of America's justice system, and it also applies to exonerees, even those guilty of other crimes.

Spend time with some of these men, as I have, and you know their lives have been shattered. There's the psychological and physical damage left by years of isolation in a cage in a maximum-security prison. There is the post-traumatic stress disorder, the fear of ordinary things, the nightmares. There are the fractured relationships with family and friends. There is starting from scratch in an unfamiliar world without any money. There is the stigma of having been convicted of murder and having been on death row. Try explaining that away in a job interview.

These men need re-entry funds, affordable housing, job training and health, educational and legal services.

The state of North Carolina allows for $50,000 in compensation to the wrongfully convicted per year of incarceration, limited to $750,000. That's not enough. Still, no one exonerated from North Carolina's death row has received any of that money. It's not because they are undeserving. It's because they are relatively powerless and vulnerable against the system that tried to kill them in the first place.

North Carolinians need to own up to our system's misdeeds and mistakes. We have a moral obligation to these men we condemned. We need a stronger legal obligation. We need revisions of our compensation statutes and programs to make them navigable and possible for death row exonerees to rebuild their lives.

Too expensive? Then let's repeal the death penalty. We can't have it both ways.

The death penalty already costs North Carolina taxpayers millions more every year than life without parole. Compensating the wrongfully convicted should be considered another cost of the dirty business that is North Carolina's death penalty industry.

Stephen Dear is executive director of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty in Carrboro.

(source: Commentary, Herald Sun)

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