A man in Florida who was facing two death sentences has been exonerated. Ralph Daniel Wright Jr., a former sergeant, had been previously convicted of murdering his lover and their 15-month-old child in 2007. The Florida Supreme Court held that the evidence was insufficient to sustain the convictions and thus reversed the convictions and vacated his sentences. This is one of many examples of individuals sentenced to death have been found to be innocent.
“Darryl Hunt’s spirit spoke innocence,” said Dr. John Mendez of Emmanuel Baptist Church. This was a beautiful and succinct description of Mr. Hunt, who dedicated his life to eradicating the death penalty. He spent 19 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Once exonerated, he dedicated the remainder of his life to giving a voice to inmates, whom are some of the most marginalized among us.
A small group of his colleagues, friends, and loved ones gathered at Emmanuel Baptist Church on March 13, 2017. At that gathering, Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation announced plans to create a $100,00 endowed scholarship fund that will be used to help previously incarcerated Forsyth County residents pursue higher education. The first scholarship will be awarded in 2018.
Mr. Hunt worked closely with the Carolina Justice Policy Center, as was acknowledged during the endowment announcement. Together, we fought to promote real, sustainable awareness and change in the criminal justice system and to eliminate the death penalty. We were forever changed as an organization by standing beside Darryl in his endeavors. This endowment is a wonderful extension of Darryl’s work and legacy.
Prosecutors have the power to essentially stop the use of the death penalty. How? By pledging not to charge any defendants capitally. It really is that simple. Prosecutors have total control over whether a case is tried as a death penalty case or a case with the maximum punishment of life without the possibility of parole. One prosecutor in Florida is doing just this to take a stand against the use of the death penalty in America.
District Attorney Aramis Ayala, the newly elected and first Black Female state attorney for Orange and Osceola Counties in Florida, has pledged not to pursue the death penalty in any case, according to Slate. In the same article, Ayala was quoted as saying, “While I have discretion to pursue the death penalty, I have determined that doing so is not in the best interest of the community or the best interest of justice,”
Carolina Justice Policy Center commends the stand against the death penalty taken by District Attorney Aramis Ayala. In North Carolina, where no one has been executed in over 10 years, we need district attorneys to join with the shifting consciousness of America and reject the death penalty as a form of punishment.
March has been a good month for advocates against the death penalty in North Carolina. In the seventh straight trial, a Wake County jury has considered all the evidence and returned a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. By rejecting the death penalty, juries in Wake County are reflecting the trends across the nation against the death penalty. A Wake County jury has not returned a death sentence since 2007.
Nathan Holden, convicted of the murders of his in-laws and beating of his ex-wife, was facing the death penalty. The News and Observer reported that a jury of 9 men and 3 women considered over 30 mitigating factors when determining if Holder should be put to death. Ultimately, they rejected death.
In 2016, Wake District Attorney Lorrin Freeman expressed that it may be time to rethink pursuing the death penalty in future cases. Despite that, death penalty cases are still tried in Wake County. Hopefully, this seventh rejection of the death penalty will encourage DA Freeman to follow the lead of her citizens and stop pursing the death penalty all together.
The trend away from the death penalty is not confined to Wake County. According to the News and Observer, there were only 5 death penalty trials in all of North Carolina last year. Four of those five trials resulted in life without parole sentences.
In a 6-2 ruling, the United State Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of Duane Buck. Justice Thomas and Justice Alito dissented.
According to the New York Times, the Court indicated the case as was riddled with “particularly noxious strains of racial prejudice.” Specifically, a psychologist testified that Black defendants were more dangerous than white ones.
While this is a Texas case, we know that race has historically played a role in death penalty cases in North Carolina. The racial bias in North Carolina death penalty cases was strongly documented through the Racial Justice Act cases that are still being litigated. This is yet another example of why it is time for North Carolina to reexamine our continued use of the death penalty.
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.