As many states across the country debate whether capital punishment should be an option for heinous crimes or scrapped altogether over cost concerns, the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in North Carolina has just released a study that adds a new layer to the discussion.
While many death penalty studies focus on the wrongfully convicted and the cost of those prosecutions and defense, the nonprofit law firm in Durham did a quantitative and qualitative review of 56 capital cases in North Carolina that ended in dismissal or acquittal.
It’s a group, death penalty researchers acknowledge, that has largely been ignored.
“We wanted to go behind the numbers to look at the stories of the actual individuals caught up in that system,” Ken Rose, senior staff attorney at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
The findings, Rose and others say, are illuminating and show trends that likely play out in other states.
▪ The state spent nearly $2.4 million — in defense costs alone — to pursue the failed cases capitally. Had the defendants been charged non-capitally, the study creators contend, much of that money could have been saved.
▪ The defendants spent an average of two years in jail before a jury acquitted them or prosecutors dropped the charges.
▪ Serious errors or misconduct played a role in many of the cases. The study found incidences of witness coercion, hidden evidence, bungled investigations, the use of improper forensic evidence and using jailhouse snitches as witnesses.
▪ By the time the 56 defendants were cleared of wrongdoing, many had lost homes, jobs, businesses, savings accounts, and seen personal relationships destroyed. Though compensation is available for the wrongfully convicted, defendants whose cases result in acquittal or dismissal are not eligible for the same recompense.
Rose, a critic of the death penalty, said he was surprised to find through the study of the 56 cases between 1989 and 2015 that prosecutors had pursued capital punishment in cases with “such weak evidence.”
Advocates for the death penalty often say the prospect of state-supported execution should be held up as a deterrent and used in the most heinous cases.
“What this study showed is prosecutors are charging the maximum penalty in order to have some negotiating strength in the weakest cases,” Rose said.
That can lead to coerced confessions that are later to be proven to be false by murder defendants worried about wrongful convictions, he said. It can also set up an arbitrariness that makes it impossible to administer capital punishment fairly.
“The complete story is a huge number of people suffer a very heavy price,” Rose said.
North Carolina has 148 inmates on death row. In September 2014, the state’s longest-serving death-row inmate was exonerated.
Henry McCollum and his brother, Leon Brown, who served 30 years in prison for a 1983 rape and murder of an 11-year-old Robeson County girl, were declared innocent by a judge and ordered released in September. The brothers, both mentally disabled, had been coerced into false confessions that they quickly recanted, according to court testimony. The case against them, which had been weak from the start, fell apart when DNA evidence implicated another man.
McCollum was on death row. Brown initially was sentenced to death, but he eventually got life without parole until his exoneration last year.
Though it took nine months, Gov. Pat McCrory granted pardons of innocence for Brown and McCollum, making each of the men eligible to receive $750,000 in compensation from the state.
The case of Leslie Lincoln in Pitt County was one the Center for Death Penalty Litigation used to illustrate the difficulties of being accused of a capital crime that ends with a jury acquittal.
Lincoln was 46 in 2002, when she thought she was starting to pull her life together. She had suffered a painful divorce, but just landed a job as an administrator at an assisted living center earning $42,000 a year.
She lived close to her mother and checked in on her frequently. Then on St. Patrick’s Day in 2002, Arlene Lincoln, Leslie’s mother, was found dead at home, the doors unlocked, stabbed more than 30 times.
Leslie Lincoln, reached on Saturday, said she was the last to see her mother, but she never thought in those early days she would be sent off to jail accused of her murder.
But that’s what happened in a case where there was botched DNA evidence and testimony from several jailhouse snitches
She still wonders what happened and breaks down in tears as she runs through scenarios in her mind about who might have fatally stabbed her mother.
“She was the type of person everyone loved,” Leslie Lincoln said. “Always working in the garden, very involved in the church.”
From September 2002 until March 2007, when a jury acquitted her, Leslie Lincoln was either in jail or under house arrest.
Not only had she lost her mother, a woman she calls “her best bud,” she lost the horses she had in 2002, her house, her boyfriend and her truck. Since her acquittal, she has lived in a truck, gone between homelessness and living in low-cost housing she can barely afford.
She suffers from the stress of her experience and now has back troubles, too, that make it difficult to work.
“There are still people that look at me like ‘I don’t know how you got away with it,’” Lincoln said. “It really makes you want to move somewhere where nobody knows you.”
Had prosecutors not sought capital punishment, Rose said, and instead pursued murder accusations without the maximum penalty, Lincoln might have been able to get bail sooner and try to keep her life together. She tried to sue the SBI, Pitt County district attorney and police, but it was dismissed for a variety of reasons.
Lincoln’s is just one story of many that death-penalty critics say could add a deeper level to the debate about the future of capital punishment.
Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a national organization that provides analysis and information on capital punishment, said on Friday that he would like to see more studies that look at capital prosecutions that don’t end in convictions.
North Carolina has no database that tracks such cases and many other states are in a similar situation.
“One of the most important things,” Dunham said about the study, “is it shines a spotlight at all the other stages at which problems occur. There are problems at all stages of the proceedings. It’s wishful thinking to to think that if somebody doesn’t get sentenced to death the process is error-free.”