Center for Death Penalty Litigation Successfully Argues against the Death Penalty for Buncombe Man

Phillip Davis was resentenced from a death sentence to life without the possibility of parole, reducing the number of active inmates on North Carolina’s death row to 148. We previously reported on Phillip’s hearing here.

The final decision was issued last Friday in Buncombe County. Mr. Davis was represented by attorneys from the Center for Death Penalty Litigation. The resentencing was based, in part, on the evolving standards for applying the death penalty, the low IQ of the defendant, and the fact that, as a juvenile, his brain development should have been considered at the time of sentencing. Additionally, the judge determined that the removal of the only qualified African American from the jury contributed to the need for resentencing in this case. The issue of removing African Americans from capital juries was the centerpiece of the, now repealed, Racial Justice Act.

CJPC wants to commend the Buncombe County District Attorney, Todd Williams, for being open minded and progressive as it relates to the administration of the death penalty. We hope that other District Attorneys across the state will follow the example being set in Buncombe County and reconsider the impacts that racial bias in jury selection may have had on death penalty cases.

Judge Denies Relief – Appeals Continue in Racial Justice Act Cases

Judge Erwin Spainhour ruled on Jan. 25th that four prisoners in 2012 who were granted relief based on the Racial Justice Act could no longer use the RJA to appeal their re-sentencing from life to death.   Judge Spainhour’s decision will be appealed.

The RJA was passed in 2009 and in 2012, Judge Greg Weeks found that racial bias played an unconstitutional role in jury selection.  There is overwhelming evidence of racial bias in jury selection in 173 capital trials during a 20 year period.  That evidence served as the foundation for Judge Weeks’ decision and is as strong as ever.  Four prisoners were re-sentenced to life as part of the decision.

The RJA was repealed in 2013 by the Republican legislature in a vote along party lines.

In Decemeber 2015, the NC Supreme Court sent the case back to Superior Court to give prosecutors more time to present their statistical evidence.  At that point, the four defendants were again placed on death row and they are currently appealing that decision.

On Jan. 25th, Judge Spainhour sided with prosecutors and ruled Judge Weeks’ decision on the Racial Justice Act was not final since appeals had not been exhausted.  As a result, the RJA can not be used as a basis for appeals now.  No additional statistical information was prepared or presented by prosecutors and Judge Spainhour made NO ruling on the merits of the evidence.

Appeals will continue according to Ken Rose, attorney for Golphin, and we hope that higher courts will ultimately recognize the overwhelming evidence of unconstitutional racial bias in jury selection.

According to a Jan. 27, 2017 editorial in the Fayetteville Observer, “Any objective observer at the only case ever heard under that act (RJA) would have concluded there was indeed racial bias  there.  Repealing the act was a horrible victory for bias in our legal system and a shameful day for the General Assembly.”   We agree.

Charleston Case Ends in Death Sentence

Dylan Roof was sentenced to death on January 11 for the murder of 9 parishioners during Bible study at Mother Emanuel Baptist Church. Roof was sentenced for crimes that caused untold suffering to the nine families of those at Mother Emanuel, the surviving victims and the entire community.

Roof seemed so intent on not allowing the jury to hear evidence of mental illness, that he took a step which in fact demonstrated mental illness – he chose to represent himself at the sentencing hearing. This bizarre twist both sealed his own fate with the jury and left the victims’ families and the public with little but disturbing glimpses of how a young man could become so filled with racism and violence.

Over the past 19 months, the surviving victims and their families have been united in their desire to talk about the lives of their loved ones. Over that time, many have spoken publicly about the remarkable lives of faith, service and compassion exhibited by the individuals who were killed. Since then, some of the families have since worked tirelessly to reduce gun violence.

They have, in most cases, shown more interest in talking about the lives of their loved ones than in giving further notoriety to the defendant who cut those lives short.

The victims’ families were never united, though, in support of the death penalty as a final outcome. Each had his or her own story; some spoke – remarkably – of forgiveness; others of not allowing a racist defendant to fill their days with vengeance on top of the pain they already suffered. Many spoke of the need to not simply be “polite” but to work diligently to end racism in everyday life. Those who opposed the death penalty were not asked to express those views to the jury.

The fact that the victims’ families never expressed a united preference for the death penalty is yet another indicator that opinions regarding the death penalty have changed. In the early 80s, death cases were frequently marked by news conferences of screaming victims and repeated cries for execution. This case was distinctly different.

The victims’ families who expressed opposition (either privately or publicly) to the death penalty over the past year and a half are supported by changing views on the death penalty. New death sentences and executions are increasingly rare. In 2016, approximately 30 people were sentenced to death in the United States, which is a 40 year low. Only five states carried out executions in 2016, showing just how infrequent use of the death penalty has become.

Support for the death penalty has rapidly eroded over the last two decades and there is an ever greater realization that we can keep society safe and punish the worst offenders by ensuring that they will spend the rest of their lives in prison.

At the end of the day, the decision about whether to impose the death penalty is not about what Dylan Roof deserves, it is about who we are as individuals and the kind of society we want to create.

  • Does the death penalty work to end racism and violence or add to it?
  • Can vengeance and executions ever provide the genuine, ongoing assistance that victims need?
  • Do we want – as individuals and as a society – to kill in order to express our outrage at those who have killed?
  • Do we want to increase the notoriety of the defendant and put the victims through years of additional court proceedings that re-open wounds?

Americans are increasingly rejecting the death penalty as they answer these questions. Life without the possibility of parole is sufficient. The death penalty does not make us safer and violence does not honor the victims. More often, it perpetuates the racism and violence we seek to end. The death penalty is a false solution; it demeans us all.

Death Penalty More Likely When Victim is White

An article entitled These Lives Matter, Those Ones Don’t:  Comparing Execution Rates by the Race and Gender of the Victim in the US and in the Top Death Penalty States, recently published in the Albany Law Review, tackles data on how the race of a victim impacts the imposition of the death penalty.  What the UNC- Chapel Hill researchers found was that that the race of a victim has a statistically significant impact on who does and does not get the death penalty.

The article states that a person who kills a white woman is ten times more likely to be executed than the killer of a Black male.  Despite the fact that Black males have the highest chance of being killed, their murders almost never face the death penalty.

Data like this is important to know and process as the fairness of the death penalty is examined.  Either one has to accept that the taking of a white life is worse than the taking of a Black life, or that the criminal justice system has deep flaws with the imposition of the death penalty.  Where there is a flaw with the most serious of penalties, the best course of action for any civilized people is to discontinue the use of the death penalty.

Death Penalty Updates from Across the Country

There were important referendums on the death penalty on the ballot in several states on November 9th.  Despite some of these setbacks, actual executions and support for the death penalty continue to be on a downward trend.

Oklahoma amended its State Constitution to protect the death penalty and declare that it cannot be deemed cruel and unusual punishment by state courts.

Voters in Nebraska decided to reinstate the death penalty, after it was eliminated by state legislators last year.

Lastly,  California voters rejected a proposition that would have repealed the death penalty, despite what appeared to be growing support heading into the election.  To make matters worse in California, voters voted to speed up the state’s appellate process for people sentenced to death.

We must continue to fight to maintain the progress we have made towards abolishing the death penalty.

Re-Sentencing in Death Case Due to Racial Bias in Jury Selection

In 1997, Phillip Davis, who was an 18 year old, with a borderline intellectual capacity, entered a guilty plea to two counts of murder.  The state sought the death penalty and prepared to pick a jury it could convince that Phillip should die for his crimes.

While seating the jury, the state sought to dismiss the one African American potential juror because she wore a character tee shirt to court, wore cross earrings, and had an estranged brother with pending criminal charges.  The one African American was removed from the jury because of her brother’s pending criminal charges, despite the fact that several white jurors were allowed to serve despite indicating that they had close family members with criminal convictions.  Davis’s attorney challenged the jury selection process at the time of trial, but the challenge was denied.

North Carolina has a long history of ignoring blatant racial bias in jury selections for capital trials.  Ken Rose, attorney with the Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation told  the Citizen Times that”…North Carolina appellate courts have not enforced Batson and we’re hoping that’s going to change because the U.S. Supreme Court has issued a series of decisions.” The tide seems to be on the verge of changing in Buncombe County.

Late last month, Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams agreed that Davis should have a new sentencing hearing based on what appears to be racial bias in jury selection.  The hearing is scheduled for November 14.

Carolina Justice Policy Center has long been an advocate for eliminating racial bias in capital jury selection.  The practice of eliminating African Americans from capital juries is one of many reasons we believe the death penalty should end in North Carolina.  We are hopeful that this courageous stand against racial bias by Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams will help other District Attorneys offices across the state re-evaluate their training and policies around eliminating racial bias.

For more details, read the full Citizen-Times article.