Scholars, lawyers supporting inmates who seek new trials

Staff writerAugust 30, 2010 

Criminal defense attorneys, scholars, crime victims and men who did time in prison for crimes they did not commit joined the legal battle of Melvin White, one of 152 death row inmates seeking to have his sentence converted to life in prison without parole.

Many of them met in downtown Raleigh this morning to push for a state examination of how death sentences are handed down.

In addition to saying race played a role in White getting the death sentence, the innocence advocates argued that questionable lab work by the State Bureau of Investigation also played a part in his case.

White was sentenced to death in 1996 for the killings of an elderly Craven County woman and her boyfriend.

White ended up on death row more than a decade before scientists and the courts began questioning the credibility of studying bullets and guns to solve crimes. A trail of bullets stretching across the country and an SBI analyst's word that they all came from a single gun is all the forensic evidence linking the inmate to the slayings.

White, throughout has maintained his innocence.

He was never found with a gun and detectives never recovered any firearms.

Though his lawyers have been working to win a new trial for him, using arguments that the science used to put the inmate on North Carolina's death row is unreliable and potentially inaccurate, he has not been granted a hearing.

This month, White joined most of the state's inmates on death row — the seventh largest in the country — seeking relief from state-supported executions on claims that racial bias played a part in their trials and sentences.

The inmates are using the Racial Justice Act, only a year-old and one of only two in the country, to use statistics in their bias claims.

Recent studies have found that qualified blacks have been excluded from capital trial juries at disproportionate rates. The studies also found that more than 40 percent of North Carolina’s 159 death row inmates were tried by juries that were all-white or had only one black member.

Carol Turowski, a professor at Wake Forest University’s School of Law and co-director of the school’s Innocence and Justice Clinic, was the main author of the "friend of the court" brief filed Monday.

“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.

anne.blythe@newsobserver.com or 919 836-4948

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