Professor Mark Rabil’s work as a capital defender featured in Virginia Quarterly Review

Photo of Mark Rabil

On Dec. 16, 2007, Jennifer Vincek was pulling another overnight shift at the Shell Food Mart in downtown Statesville, North Carolina, when Jeffrey Peck, a regular at the store, stopped in for coffee and the morning paper. As usual, Vincek was alone, so she and Peck sat together and talked through the final flickers of night. She had three young children at home. Peck had five young grandkids. With Christmas just a week away and an unusual weather pattern sweeping across the East Coast, it isn’t difficult to imagine what they might have discussed. Eventually a customer wearing a green parka walked in, a nineteen-year-old named Andrew Ramseur. The store’s surveillance camera picked him up as he walked straight to the bathroom, and  then again thirty seconds later as he made his way toward the front of the store. By then Vincek had returned to the counter. She pointed him toward the bread display, where he picked up a loaf and placed it between them at the register. 

The gun appeared when Vincek started to ring him up. She fell to her knees when he pointed it at her face. Ramseur reached over and took cash from the register, then shot Vincek. Peck, apparently trying to distract Ramseur, pushed a phone card display to the floor. Ramseur turned and shot Peck in the chest, then went back to Vincek and pumped another bullet into her body, then grabbed more cash from the register. As Ramseur left the store, he passed another man walking in, but said nothing as he made his way to a white minivan, got in, and drove away. He was in police custody by the time the surveillance footage aired on the local news.

The murders marked the bottom of a downward spiral for Ramseur. The year before, he was arrested for breaking and entering. The felony was reduced to a misdemeanor, but to his family it signaled the severity of his drug problem. Ramseur’s father was forced to put him out of the house because of his substance abuse. His older brother, Shon, who was enrolled at Appalachian State University, took Andrew in, and for a while it seemed as if things might work out: Andrew found a job at a pizza shop and was, according to a friend, “trying to get straight.” But then, homesick, he made his way back to Statesville, where he bounced around for a while before falling back into his pattern of drinking, drug abuse, and criminal activity. First he was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon; the charge was dismissed. Then came the murders of Vincek and Peck.

The killings sent a chill through Statesville. Within days of Ramseur’s arrest, the Statesville Record & Landmark reported that prosecutors planned to seek the death penalty. Following his indictment, Ramseur entered a plea of not guilty. His attorneys, brothers Mark and Vince Rabil, started preparing a diminished-capacity defense, based in part on the fact that, a few months before the shooting, Ramseur had been hospitalized for alcohol poisoning, following a binge that included a serious fall and a consequent traumatic brain injury. There was no way to prove that he hadn’t taken two lives; rather, the defense hoped to convince the jury that Ramseur was guilty of not first- but second-degree murder, or even manslaughter. This would secure a life sentence without parole instead of the death penalty. Their plan was to argue that the combination of head trauma, PCP use, and other mitigating factors had significantly reduced Ramseur’s culpability. Given the circumstances and the footage, they knew the odds were against them.

By all accounts, the Rabil brothers were skilled, experienced, and highly respected. Vince, the older of the two brothers, had begun his career as a prosecutor in Guilford County before switching sides. Mark had been drawn to criminal-defense work from the start, and got his first big case early when, at twenty-nine, he was appointed to represent nineteen-year-old Darryl Hunt, an African American who was tried in 1984 for the rape and murder of a copyeditor named Deborah Sykes. No physical evidence linked Hunt to the crime. Instead, he was identified in a photo lineup. Afterward his girlfriend, who was arrested on an outstanding charge after Hunt was taken into custody, said he’d confessed to killing Sykes. Though she later recanted, her statement was still admitted at the trial. Rabil never doubted his young client’s innocence. Little did he know, however, that he would spend the next twenty years proving that innocence in court.

Hunt testified at trial that he’d never met Sykes. Nonetheless, the state produced witnesses who testified that they’d seen them together before the crime or had seen Hunt leave bloodstained towels behind in a hotel
restroom. After deliberating for three days, the jury convicted Hunt, and would have sought the death penalty but for a skeptical foreman who would only agree to a life sentence. (In North Carolina, only a unanimous jury can deliver a death penalty.)

On appeal, the court found that Hunt’s girlfriend’s testimony had been improperly admitted, and the verdict of guilt was overturned. Hunt was released on bond, and was offered a plea deal that would have set him free if he confessed. He rejected the offer and was tried a second time in 1990. At that trial, two witnesses testified that Hunt had confessed to them while in jail, and he was again convicted.

In 1994, a DNA test raised serious doubts about Hunt’s guilt in the Sykes murder. According to the test, the semen taken from Sykes’s body did not match Hunt’s. As journalist Phoebe Zerwick would later write in an eight-part series for the Winston-Salem Journal: “It was the first such certain physical evidence in the case, and it contradicted the prosecutor’s closing argument and certainly [witness Johnny] Gray’s testimony that it was Hunt he saw straddling Sykes, and Hunt who ran from the scene zipping up his fly.”

Yet Hunt remained behind bars. In his ruling, Judge Melzer Morgan said that Hunt still could have been an accomplice in the attack, and that the lack of DNA evidence didn’t necessarily exclude him from the murder. The 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals turned down Hunt’s request for a new trial based on the rape-kit evidence. The US Supreme Court declined to hear it. Two governors refused to act on Hunt’s clemency petition. It took a new law granting defendants the right to request searches of state and federal DNA databases—as well as the attention generated by Zerwick’s 2003 Journal exposé—for the man who was a match for the semen to be identified and arrested.

Zerwick’s series also revealed that jury discrimination had pervaded Hunt’s entire ordeal. Winston-Salem, where the crimes took place, was, like Statesville, roughly 35 percent black. But of the sixty jurors and alternates chosen to decide Hunt’s fate in four different trials, only one was black. After nearly twenty years behind bars, Hunt left prison on Christmas Eve 2003. He was later awarded a multimillion-dollar restitution payment from the state.

Read the original story here.