Justice Withheld Series
News & Observer / North Carolina
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Bonnie M. Wells
Lawyers Plead For Clemency For Man In 1991 Killing Of Shelby Clerk
Andrea Weigl, Staff Writer
Defense lawyers pleaded Wednesday for the life of a Shelby man scheduled to be executed next week for the killing of a convenience store clerk on Halloween in 1991. The lawyers argued that the courts haven't evaluated recently uncovered evidence of alleged prosecutorial misconduct.
William D. "Bugsy" Powell was sentenced to death for the slaying of Mary Gladden, a clerk at The Pantry store in Shelby that Powell was attempting to rob in order to buy cocaine.
Powell's lawyers say Cleveland District Attorney Bill Young failed to reveal a deal with Powell's girlfriend, Lori Yelton Donohue, in exchange for her testimony at the 1993 trial. Prosecutors are required to tell the defense about any promises made to witnesses, which allows defense lawyers to cross-examine witnesses about their motive for testifying.
"We think it's a big deal," Shelby lawyer David Teddy said Wednesday at a news conference in downtown Raleigh. "The point is [Powell's trial lawyer] was deprived of the opportunity to question Lori Yelton [Donohue] on this question."
The alleged prosecutorial misconduct was discovered a week ago when Teddy interviewed Donohue in preparation for Powell's clemency hearing, which took place Wednesday before Gov. Mike Easley. The governor could decide clemency at any time before the execution.
Donohue told Teddy that she was promised reward money or some other help in exchange for her testimony. Donohue said she did not receive any money but saw a felony larceny charge dismissed three months after she testified, according to her affidavit.
At trial, Donohue testified about seeing a bloodied Powell return after the killing with some money, one of Powell's lawyers said. The state also introduced a taped phone call between her and Powell from jail. The phone call was the only time the jury heard Powell speak during the trial, and he seemed more concerned about getting out of jail to be with Donohue than about taking someone's life, his lawyers said.
It was not the most sympathetic portrayal of Powell, Teddy said.
Young, the prosecutor, couldn't be reached for comment this week about the allegation that he withheld information from the defense.
Last week, a judge refused to conduct a hearing about Donohue's alleged deal. That ruling will be appealed to the N.C. Supreme Court as soon as a transcript of last week's hearing is complete, said Chapel Hill lawyer Bill Massengale. Powell's lawyers are hoping the Supreme Court will stay the execution so a hearing can be held on the matter.
Also at Wednesday's news conference, Columbia University professor Peter Bearman discussed a 1997 study that he conducted analyzing more than 100 death penalty verdicts in North Carolina between 1978 and 1995. At the time, Bearman was a sociology professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and was hired by another death row inmate's lawyer to look at what kinds of first-degree murder cases warranted the death penalty.
While Bearman says he didn't find anything out of line with the death sentence for the man whose lawyer hired him, Bearman did conclude that Powell's sentence was unusual because most cases with similar facts resulted in life sentences, not death sentences. That disparity brought Bearman from New York to speak to the governor on behalf of Powell, whom he has never met.
"Cases that look like Mr. Powell's case are life cases, not death cases," he said.
Key Vote Expected On Executions:
The Bill Would Stop Executions While A Panel Studies Fairness Of N.C.'s Death Penalty
Matthew Eisley, Staff Writer
A proposal to halt state executions for several years is headed for a climactic vote today in the state House after six years of growing concern about the application of North Carolina's death penalty.
House Speaker Jim Black, a Matthews Democrat, said Tuesday night that he planned a debate and vote by all 120 state representatives one day after the proposal passed a House committee for the first time.
"It's going to come up for a vote, and I'm going to vote for it," Black said. "It's going to be very close."
Under the proposal, executions of convicted murderers would stop for two or three years while a new commission examines the state's death-penalty system and proposes remedies for any problems it finds. All executions in North Carolina are by lethal injection.
Murder trials, convictions and sentencing would continue during the execution hiatus.
Black said he still supports the death penalty for the worst murders, but recent death row exonerations concern him.
Republican state Rep. Rick Eddins of Raleigh, who is organizing the opposition vote, said he expects to defeat the proposal if all House members show up today.
The key fight, Eddins said, is in the House. If the proposal passes there, he said, it will more easily pass the Senate, which approved a similar bill two years ago.
"This is where the battle is," he said.
If North Carolina enacts the moratorium, it would become just the third state in recent times to halt executions -- and the state's legislature the first to do so. The other suspensions, in Illinois and Maryland, were ordered by governors.
Gov. Mike Easley, a Democrat and former district attorney, supports the death penalty and sees no need for a moratorium, spokeswoman Sherri Johnson said. Easley has refused to say whether he would veto the bill.
A House judiciary committee approved the measure 8-6 along party lines Tuesday after an hour and a half of vigorous debate foreshadowing the likely showdown in the full House today.
Supporters say the state needs a moratorium and a study to make sure it's fairly carrying out the death penalty. They pointed Tuesday to the exoneration of innocents on death row and evidence of persistent racial bias as proof that the system is failing.
"It's not a question of whether or not problems exist; it's a question of whether we will fix it," said Alan Gell, who spent nine years in prison for murder, half of that on death row. He was acquitted at retrial after it was revealed that his initial prosecutors had withheld evidence casting doubt on their case. "I have a real good reason to not believe in the death penalty: It almost killed me."
Rep. Joe Hackney, a Chapel Hill Democrat and lawyer who sponsored the bill, said a temporary halt in executions is necessary.
"If you find something significant in the middle of a study, you do not want executions to be going on," he said.
Opponents say the issues could easily be studied without a moratorium, which they view as the first step toward abolishing capital punishment in North Carolina. They say that a ban on executions would take away a deterrent to murder.
"I believe the system is working," said Eddins, whose uncle was murdered in 1988.
"We need a moratorium on criminals going out on our citizens and causing more murders, more problems. Is there going to be a moratorium on the gang problem? What are we going to do about that?"
Rep. Debbie Clary, a Cherryville Republican, turned at one point toward moratorium advocates in the audience and asked forcefully: "Why in the name of God haven't you been studying instead of lobbying? That spells out very clearly that the ultimate goal here is to repeal the death penalty."
Every Democrat on the committee voted for the measure and all but one Republican voted against it; he was absent.
Under the bill, executions would stop for at least two years, though murder defendants could still be convicted and sentenced to death.
The 15-member study commission would have five members appointed by Senate leader Marc Basnight, five by House Speaker Jim Black and five by Gov. Mike Easley.
The commission would study:
* The adequacy of lawyers representing murder defendants.
* The appeals process.
* Possible racial bias.
* Prosecutorial misconduct.
* How innocent people wind up on death row for execution.
The commission would submit an interim report in 2007. The panel would give the legislature a final report in 2008.
The proposal would have to clear the House by Thursday to make it to the Senate. That's the deadline for bills crossing over between chambers.
Staff writer Matthew Eisley can be reached at 829-4538 or
"Great spirits have always found violent opposition from mediocrities. The latter cannot understand it when a man does not thoughtlessly submit to hereditary prejudices but honestly and courageously uses his intelligence." --Einstein, Albert