Wake’s recent capital trials didn’t yield death penalty. But they did raise questions.

Donovan Jevonte Richardson
Donovan Jevonte Richardson

When a capital trial begins next month for accused double murderer Donovan Jevonte Richardson of Holly Springs, it will mark the ninth death penalty case in Wake County since 2008.

The previous eight cases all ended in sentences of life without parole.

A criminal justice advocate says that Wake prosecutors have offered those facing the death penalty plea deals of life in prison that were then turned down.

“The threat of the death penalty is used as a hammer to get a plea deal. I never understood how that’s ethical.” said Gerda Stein, a spokeswoman and mitigation investigator with the Center For Death Penalty Litigation, a non-profit law firm in Durham that represents the state’s death row inmates.

But Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman calls Stein’s assertion “a hollow suggestion.” She said prosecutors may accept a plea deal from a defendant, but only after a decision has been made from the outset to seek the death penalty.

“Since I have been here we have had a number of people plead out to first-degree murder in cases in which we decided to try capitally,” said Freeman, who was elected district attorney in 2014. “To think that we we would use the death penalty to coerce a plea, I don’t think that’s accurate. There have been times that a case merits a prosecutor the opportunity to save a [victim’s] family from the trauma of going through a trial and a defendant willing to accept responsibility.”

Travion Smith

Wake County jurors’ decisions to spare the lives of the defendants in death-penalty cases has not gone unnoticed by Freeman. Last year, she said it might be time to reconsider the pursuit of capital punishment after a jury of six men and six women considered Travion Devonte Smith’s troubled upbringing and recommended life in prison for the brutal murder of Melissa Huggins-Jones in 2013.

Freeman said her office evaluates evidence of possible aggravating factors that may merit a capital case. Those include whether the crime was particularly heinous, atrocious and cruel, and whether the motive was for gain, as in robbery or burglary.

“We believe there are certain cases that reach a level of being so egregious that it is appropriate for our community, through the jury process, to make a determination as to whether the maximum penalty under our law is appropriate,” she said. “We do our best to not take cases capitally that do not merit or match up with what the law provides. But ultimately, to make sure that these are cases in which the community is the final arbiter and makes that decision.”

Stein also questioned the cost of capital murder trials for taxpayers and pointed to a disproportionate racial component in these cases: 10 of Wake County’s death row inmates are black, one is white and one is Latino.

Capital case cost

A capital case that results in a plea to a life sentence is $83,488, Stein said. That’s almost twice the cost – $44,480 – for a non-capital first-degree murder trial that results in a life sentence.

“In other words, it is cheaper to go to trial in a non-capital case than to secure a plea deal in a case,” Stein stated in an email to The News & Observer. “It results in an arbitrary group of people who are tried capitally – not because they committed the worst crimes and the district attorney determined that a death sentence was warranted – but because they refused to plead guilty.”

Freeman described capital cases as “time and resource intensive.”

“At the end of the day, we select the cases that we think are appropriate for the people of the community to make the decision,” she said.

As for the racial disparity issue, Stein pointed out that while Wake County’s population is 69 percent white and 21 percent black, six of the eight defendants that prosecutors have tried in capital cases since 2008 have been black.

White defendants in several of the county’s most high-profile murder cases were not tried capitally. They include Jonathan Broyhill, who is serving a life sentence after he was convicted in the death of Democratic Party strategist Jamie Kirk Hahn; Jason Young, who was convicted in 2012 for the first-degree murder of his wife, Michelle Young; and Brad Cooper, who maintained for six years that he was not guilty of the first-degree murder of his wife, Nancy Cooper, before pleading guilty to second-degree murder in 2014.

Freeman said that prosecutors rarely pursue the death penalty for domestic cases in Wake.

“When we consider a case, race is not a factor,” Freeman replied when asked about the disproportionate number of Wake County blacks on death row.

‘Ghastly cases’

Richardson, 24, is black. In August 2014, he, along with Gregory Adalverto Crawford of Fuquay-Varina and Kevin Bernard Britt of Holly Springs, was charged by Wake sheriff’s deputies with the first-degree murders of Aurthur Lee Brown, 78, and his best friend, David Eugene McKoy, in Brown’s Fuquay-Varina home. Investigators said the men conspired to rob the victims.

Crawford last year was sentenced to life in prison. Britt has not gone to trial, but has been cooperating with investigators.

“The truth is they are all ghastly cases,” Stein said. “But Wake County at least doesn’t seem to be moving forward with the rest of the country away from the death penalty.”

Freeman disagreed.

“Statewide, the death penalty is being sought in fewer cases,” she said. “Here in Wake County, it’s starting to bear out over the past 10 to 20 years the number of capital cases has decreased.”

Stein said that African-Americans are unfairly excluded from serving on capital juries in Wake County. She pointed to a Michigan State University study that was conducted on behalf of the state’s Racial Justice Act. It showed that the odds of qualified black jurors in North Carolina being struck by prosecutors was more than twice as likely than for white jurors.

“In the last two Wake capital trials, prosecutors struck almost all eligible black jurors,” Stein said. “Of the 30 citizens selected as jurors in the two trials, only one was African-American.”

Freeman countered that three African Americans served as jurors during a 2014 capital case when Armond Devega, charged with two counts of murder, was found guilty on one count and not guilty of the other.

“Criminal laws and procedure and ethical guidelines specifically prohibit using race as a basis for excluding a juror,” Frreman wrote in an email Friday to The News & Observer, “and there are procedural safeguards in place that allow a defendant to challenge the outcome of a capital case if it is determined that race was inappropriately relied upon in jury selection. “.

Thomasi McDonald: 919-829-4533, @thomcdonald

Wake’s capital cases

Since 2008. All resulted in sentences of life in prison without parole.

▪ Jakiem Wilson, 2008: Convicted of killing his wife by stabbing her multiple times. Wilson is African-American..

▪ Charles Dickerson, 2008: Convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend because he didn’t want her to marry someone else. Dickerson is African-American.

▪ Sam Cooper, 2010: Convicted of five separate counts of first-degree murder and multiple robberies with a dangerous weapon. Cooper is African-American.

▪ Joshua Stepp, 2011: Convicted of murdering and sexually assaulting his 10-month-old stepdaughter.Stepp is white.

▪ Jason Williford, 2012: Convicted of breaking into a stranger’s home, brutally raping her and beating her to death with a heavy object. Williford is white.

▪ Armond Devega, 2014: Charged with two counts of first-degree murder. The jury found him guilty on one count and not guilty on the other. Devega is African-American.

▪ Travion Smith, 2016: Convicted of first-degree murder for being one of two defendants who broke into the apartment of a woman they did not know and beating and stabbing her to death during a robbery. Smith is African-America.

▪ Nathan Holden, 2017: Killed his in-laws and tried to kill wife. Holden is African-American.

Source: The Center for Death Penalty Litigation