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Death penalty opponents cite N.C. lab concerns

Supporters of a man on North Carolina's death row want a new look at the case after revelations that the state’s top crime lab was plagued by overstated or falsely reported evidence.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Supporters of a man on North Carolina’s death row want a new look at the case after revelations that the state’s top crime lab was plagued by overstated or falsely reported evidence.

Attorneys and four men freed from prison because of faulty evidence presented at their trials on Monday urged a review of Melvin White’s death sentence. Two of the released inmates also were on death row.

White was sentenced to death in 1996 for the slayings of an elderly Craven County woman and her boyfriend. He has always proclaimed his innocence.

The only forensic evidence linking him to the killings is the bullet-tracing work of a State Bureau of Investigation analyst who didn’t describe why he concluded the casings all came from the same gun.

"For years, (the SBI has) tried to dupe us with what they claim to be valid science," said Mark Rabil, co-director of the Wake Forest University School of Law's Innocence & Justice Clinic, which filed a brief in support of White's case.

"Truth is transparent. We now know that just because your wear a badge and carry a gun doesn't mean you tell the truth," Rabil said.

White's attorney, Kristin Parks, said there were other problems with the investigation of the case besides the questionable SBI evidence. The victim told a friend who was a former deputy several times that she feared someone living in her house would kill her, but investigators never looked into who that was, she said.

"Every bit of evidence, every witness we talked to and every bit of information we've gathered has pointed to the fact that Melvin White just may be telling the truth," Parks said.

White is one of 159 prisoners on North Carolina’s death row – 151 have filed motions under the state's Racial Justice Act. The year-old law allows death row inmates to use statistics and other evidence to prove racial bias resulted in the death sentences. They’re asking that their sentences be converted to life in prison without parole.

The motions for the death row prisoners cite a study by Michigan State University showing that a defendant in North Carolina is 2.6 times more likely to be sentenced to death if at least one of the victims is white. The study also showed that out of the 159 people on death row, 31 had all-white juries and 38 had only one person of color on their jury.

"Non-white defendants face a uniquely high rate of wrongful conviction," said Theresa Newman, co-director of the Wrongful Convictions Clinic in the Duke University School of Law.

Five of seven North Carolina death row inmates who have been exonerated since 1973 are black, and all of the victims in the cases were white, Newman said.

"Science matters, race matters, it all matters when we're trying to convict the person who really committed the crime," she said.

Death penalty moratorium urged

Ronald Cotton spent 11 years behind bars after Jennifer Thompson picked him out of a lineup as the man who had raped her. DNA evidence cleared him of the crime in 1995.

"We're all bad at identifying people of other races," Thompson said.

"I wish things like this didn"t happen to people, but it does. People make mistakes," Cotton said. "If we don't try to correct it, this is going to continue to happen."

Darryl Hunt, who spent almost 20 years in prison for a rape and murder that he didn't commit, said he is pained by the prospect of having people on death row who have been wrongly convicted.

"We have to continue to fight for people who are innocent," Hunt said. "If one juror on my trial had voted the other way, I would have been executed before the DNA (evidence that exonerated me) came out in 1994."

Rabil and others called for halting all executions in the state until the concerns about racial bias and errors by the SBI lab can be resolved. Numerous district attorneys also support a moratorium, he said.

Two retired prosecutors have been asked to help district attorneys fight Racial Justice Act motions filed by death row prisoners.

The Winston-Salem Journal reported Monday that retired Forsyth County District Attorney Tom Keith and retired Wake County Assistant District Attorney Susan Spurlin will work for the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys on the project.

Keith, who lobbied against the act while he was district attorney, said part of his job is collecting data that prosecutors can use in their response to the motions. The cases could involve aggravating factors that could explain the racial disparity, he said.

Money from the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts will be used to pay for the part-time positions of Keith, Spurlin and a third person who hasn’t been hired yet, said Peg Dorer, the director of the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys. She said the money is coming out of the current budget and no new money is being allocated.


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