Should NC anti-death penalty juries be allowed to hear death penalty cases?

A North Carolina civil rights group is reviewing a Wake County death penalty case, arguing that a standard jury selection method will exclude blacks, women and Catholics from hearing the case.

Jury selection in Brandon Xavier Hill’s trial is set to begin this week

Hill is one of two men who could face the death penalty for the 2016 slayings of a pregnant April Holland and Dwayne Garvey at the former America’s Best Value Inn near Crabtree Valley Mall.

In 2019, a Wake County jury found Seaga Gillard guilty of two counts of first-degree murder in the murders and sentenced him to death.

The jury found Gillard guilty of the double homicide after a trial in which prosecutors showed jurors the shooting, which was caught on video. Prosecutors said the men sought out Holland’s prostitution services but ended up killing her and her boyfriend, who had three children together. Holland was four months pregnant.

Jurors sentenced Gillard to death after hearing several victims say they met Gillard and Hill after advertising prostitution services on dating websites and apps, The News & Observer reported.

The women were expecting a single customer, but two men came to their door, tied them up, robbed them and sexually assaulted them, they testified.

How it works right now

In Gillard’s and other capital cases in North Carolina, prosecutors strike prospective jurors whose opposition to the death penalty prevents them from sentencing someone to death.

A blanket opposition to the death penalty is not enough, according to the North Carolina Supreme Court Justices Book, a resource for justices compiled by UNC School of Government staff.

However, when jurors’ beliefs would materially limit their ability to follow a judge’s instructions during a capital sentencing hearing or prevent them from fairly considering the imposition of the death penalty, “the juror must be excused,” the book states.

The NC Supreme Court in 1992 rejected the argument that juries selected under the current standard are more likely to convict than a jury not qualified to die, the book states. In 1986 the US Supreme Court ruled that the practice, known as death qualifications, does not violate a defendant’s right to an impartial jury.

ACLU Arguments

During a two-day hearing on Aug. 29 and Sept. 1, American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina attorneys Henderson Hill and Brian Stoll presented evidence on Hill’s behalf to argue that the current practice is discriminatory and violates rights of Hill for a fair trial. as well as the right of certain community members to serve on Hill’s jury.

The hearing is likely to resume on Monday or Tuesday, depending on when the parties decide to begin jury selection, as well as attendance at other pretrial hearings.

It is unlikely that Judge Paul Ridgeway will rule against existing law and precedent, but the hearing creates an opportunity for ACLU attorneys to bring their arguments against the death penalty to the Supreme Court if Hill is convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

The jury selection process is expected to take weeks, and testimony is expected to begin in mid-to-late October.

Witnesses at the ongoing pretrial hearing included national experts who discussed the history of racial discrimination in the criminal justice system and the associated injury to blacks after lynchings and disparate outcomes of the death penalty.

Experts also discussed how polls show a general decline in support for the death penalty for people convicted of murder, from 79% in 1988 to 54% in 2021.

Some of the evidence included a 2022 study of jury selection for 10 capital trials in Wake County from 2008 to 2019.

The study found that the death certification process disproportionately excluded black potential jurors, who were turned away at 2.27 times the rate of white potential jurors.

It also found that women and religious people were excluded at a higher rate.

The study, which focused on black and white potential jurors, found that in the 10 cases, there were 1,027 jurors of those races considered.

Of the 979 whites, 111, or 11 percent, were turned away because of their stance on the death penalty, the study found.

Of the 211 black jurors, 52 or 25% were dismissed.

In those 10 cases, two of the juries had no blacks and four had one black.

Mona Lynch, a professor of criminology at the University of California, Irvine, testified about mock jury studies that compared juries whose members all said they could sentence someone to death with juries that included people with mixed views on the death penalty.

The study found that mixed jurors were more skeptical, spent more time reviewing the evidence and had better recall of the facts of the case, Lynch testified.

Another study found that if at least one black person was in a real courtroom, they were less likely to sentence someone to death

“The research is very strong that black defendants will suffer as a result of disproportionate exclusion,” he said.

Death Penalty at Wake

Overall, death sentences in North Carolina have declined significantly since the 1990s, when juries sentenced between 20 and 34 people to death annually, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Since 2007, between zero and fewer than five people have been sentenced to death each year.

The last execution in North Carolina took place in 2006, as litigation over the state’s lethal injection method and other issues halted executions in the state.

Wake County District Attorney Lorraine Freeman has been criticized by criminal justice reform advocates for continuing to pursue the death penalty in a system they say is flawed and disproportionately affects poor and black people.

Freeman won’t commit to not seeking the death penalty, she said, because she wants to be able to discuss that option with families whose loved ones have been murdered. Freeman declined to comment Friday as the judge considers the motion.

Earlier this year, the ACLU of North Carolina launched a voter education campaign on issues, including Freeman’s use of the death penalty, ahead of the Democratic primary for Wake district attorney. Freeman won 59 percent of the vote over challenger Damon Chetson, a defense attorney who has pledged not to seek the death penalty.

Freeman faces Republican challenger Jeff Dobson in the Nov. 8 general election.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *