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Innocence and Justice Clinic co-director files brief supporting inmates with legitimate claims of innocence

Professor Carol Turowski, co-director of the Wake Forest University School of Law Innocence and Justice Clinic, moderated a press conference on Monday where criminal defense attorneys, respected academics, crime victims and several of the wrongly convicted gathered in downtown Raleigh to ask that North Carolina reexamine the way death sentences are handed down.

Joining Turowski at the press conference was Innocence and Justice Clinic Co-Director Mark Rabil, exonerees Darryl Hunt and Ronald Cotton and Theresa Newman, co-director of the Duke Wrongful Conviction Clinic, among others.

A recent audit commissioned by N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper uncovered more than 200 cases in which the State Bureau of Investigation withheld or distorted blood evidence.

“I would like to think the Innocence and Justice Clinic played some role in District Attorney Seth Edwards support for a moratorium on the death penalty for cases related to the SBI scandal,” Turowski said.  “This is certainly an important and relevant event given the impending visit from John Grisham and the small group discussions about The Innocent Man.”

Melvin White was sentenced to death based on questionable science linking bullet casings at the crime scene to ones found on a street-corner in Arizona. This forensic evidence was offered by the SBI lab that is under investigation. Despite evidence that the investigation in his case violated professional standards, White remains on death row.

Levon Jones was freed from North Carolina’s death row after the lead witness in his case admitted to being paid for false testimony. Glen Edward Chapman was exonerated after a detective’s false testimony helped send him to death row.

A disturbing pattern emerges from these cases. Jones, Chapman and White are all black, and all of their death sentences were based on highly questionable or false evidence.

What is more, Jones, Chapman and White were all sentenced to death by overwhelmingly white juries that had only one black person. In fact, more than 40 percent of North Carolina’s death row inmates received their death sentences from all-white juries or juries with only one person of color.

This is the state of life-and-death justice in North Carolina.

“In light of what we’ve learned about the unreliable work at the State Bureau of Investigation, along with new studies showing evidence of racial bias in our courtrooms, the least we can do is take another look at these death sentences,” said Kristin Parks, attorney for Melvin White. “We want to know how many innocent people are sitting on death row in North Carolina.”

The advocates also announced the filing on Monday of a friend of the court, or “amici curiae,” brief in support of inmates with legitimate claims of innocence who are asking to have their death sentences reconsidered under the N.C. Racial Justice Act, a trailblazing law crafted to stamp out racial bias in courtrooms. The amici brief filed on behalf of Melvin Lee White is joined by 61 members of the Innocence Network, Turowski said.

Those who win their claims under the Racial Justice Act, proving that racial bias played a part in their convictions, will have their sentences converted to life in prison without parole.

Several of those attending the press conference have signed onto the brief, of which Turowski is counsel of record.

“The cases we’ve seen in the past few years reveal egregious abuses of power, and they make clear that race still plays a role in wrongful convictions in North Carolina,” Turowski said.

Since 2007, three of North Carolina’s death row inmates have been exonerated — all of them black men.

In two cases, no physical evidence linked the men to the crimes, and prosecutors relied on the testimony of one witness who later admitted perjury. In the other case, evidence was withheld, documents were lost, misplaced or destroyed, and a detective lied on the witness stand.

Since 1973, six of seven exonerated death row inmates were minorities.

“The majority of people freed from death row are black men accused of killing white victims,” said Turowski. “Across the South, blacks are more likely to be wrongfully convicted than any other group of people. We should be deeply troubled by these facts.”

The brief filed Monday lays out three factors that make minorities more likely to receive death sentences, despite weak evidence and shoddy investigations:

○     Racial stereotyping: The image of blacks as “prone to violence” persists, and it infects juries, many of which have few or no black members. This stereotype also taints law enforcement investigations and prosecutors’ decisions. These negative images of blacks create a cycle of injustice.

○     Eyewitness misidentification: Studies have documented that witnesses are more likely to misidentify someone of another race, even if they hold no conscious prejudices. At trial, juries tend to see eyewitness accounts as infallible, even when warned that they are frequently wrong.

○     Minorities make “easy targets”: Afflictions of minority communities, such as poverty and lack of education, make them easy targets for law enforcement and prosecutors. The wrongly accused often don’t have the resources to adequately defend themselves, and they are more frequently fingered by snitches seeking rewards from police.

“Wrongful convictions undermine our justice system and our state’s moral standards,” said Parks. “The only thing worse is a wrongful death sentence. As a justice-seeking society, we cannot allow these flawed prosecutions to continue.”