Sunday, April 06, 2008

Guest Shot: The Wrong Man

The following editorial was published in the Charlotte (NC) News & Observer on April 4, 2008.

The wrong man
Glen Chapman is free, but his case points to the dangerous imperfections in North Carolina's use of the death penalty

Were it not for a couple of good appellate lawyers and Superior Court Judge Robert C. Ervin, Glen Chapman might have been killed by the state in Central Prison's death chamber. He had been on death row for nearly 14 years, following a conviction for the 1992 murders of two women in Hickory.

After years of appeals, Judge Ervin ruled in November that Chapman deserved another trial. The Catawba County District Attorney, James Gaither Jr., then dismissed the murder charges against him, saying there was not enough evidence for a retrial.

So on Wednesday (April 2, 2008), the 40-year-old Chapman was released -- from death row to freedom.

Ervin, who held six hearings over five years, found that an investigator in the case, Dennis Rhoney, lied in his testimony about Chapman's involvement in the murders.

The judge found that Rhoney had withheld evidence from prosecutors that would have bolstered Chapman's claim of innocence. He also found that Chapman's trial lawyers overlooked evidence in the deaths of Betty Jean Ramseur and Tenene Yvette Conley and didn't investigate thoroughly. (The appeals lawyers argued that Chapman's trial attorneys were "excessive users of alcohol.")

Human error

And Judge Ervin also said that a forensic pathologist's report suggested Conley might have died of a drug overdose instead of having been murdered.

This case is a tragedy on many levels. But one of Chapman's appellate attorneys, Jessica Leaven, had it right on the bottom line when she said, "Everything that you can possibly imagine going wrong in a capital case went wrong. It's a prime example why the death penalty should be abolished."

The justice system is run by imperfect humans, no different than all other humans. Sometimes they make mistakes. Sometimes they do things wrong. Sometimes they do wrong things. Some attorneys are more competent than others. Some district attorneys are tempted to put winning ahead of their duty as officers of the court to seek justice, first and foremost.

Tough guys

And all the time, politicians sing their "tough on crime" songs and stand by application of the one penalty in the system that cannot be reversed, or corrected in any way. Executions in North Carolina currently are on hold pending court action on whether the lethal injection used here and in other states is unconstitutional because it can amount to "cruel and unusual punishment."

Mistakes have been made in North Carolina. Prosecutors have been found to have not handled cases in a straight-up fashion. Add to all this the unreliability of some witnesses, and you have, particularly in death penalty cases, a tragic accident waiting to happen.

So is the state willing to say, in effect, well, if we kill the wrong person on occasion, we still should stick with the death penalty? If it is, that's disgraceful.

And let it not be forgotten, not that it equals the argument that a wrongful execution is unacceptable, but vast sums are spent on prosecuting death cases and through the appeals process. (One wonders if those who'd like to shorten the distance between conviction and execution are given any pause by the Chapman case.)

The system is imperfect. As long as that's so, the death penalty cannot be administered in any way that can be described as fair.