Alan Gell sat in prison for nine years for a crime he did not commit. He spent four of those years—the length of your entire time at Duke—on death row for the 1995 murder of Allen Ray Jenkins in Aulander, N.C. In spite of the fact that there was no physical evidence linking Gell to the case and that the strongest evidence against him was the testimony of two young females who were accomplices to the crime, the Attorney General’s office tried him for first-degree murder.
During the initial trial, the jury never heard from some of the 17 witnesses who saw the victim alive after the time Gell allegedly committed the murder nor from an audiotape revealing that the two female co-defendants sought to concoct a story that would frame Gell. Failing to act in accordance with the Constitution, the Attorney General’s office did not share these testimonies or the tape with the defense attorneys.
Following the conviction, Gell was appointed new attorneys who not only discovered the tape and the favorable testimony but also worked with forensic experts to determine that Jenkins could not have died April 3—the date Gell allegedly committed the crime. Yet the Attorney General’s office still pushed for Gell’s execution in spite of the overwhelming evidence in his favor.
Lawyers from the office went so far as to retry the case even after a superior court judge in Bertie County overturned the initial verdict. The jury in the second trial deliberated for less than three hours before exonerating the defendant. Gell left prison Feb. 18, 2004, after spending close to a decade behind bars.
I wish I could tell you that such a case is an isolated incident that rarely occurs in our judicial system. But in North Carolina alone, under the current death penalty law, at least five innocent people have been sentenced to death. Cognizant of the systemic flaws that have contributed to these wrongful convictions, 39 legislators in the North Carolina House recently introduced Bill 529 calling for a moratorium. The bill proposes a two-year suspension of executions during which time the General Assembly would review the state’s capital punishment system. During these two years, however, the state can still try original and appellate death penalty cases.
Regardless of one’s stance on the death penalty, there is simply no rational reason for opposing this bill. The moratorium is not a partisan issue but rather an attempt by all parties involved to ameliorate our state’s judicial system. The committee assigned to conduct the review would address, among other topics, the issue of incompetent counsel and the prevalence of discrimination in first-degree murder cases.
According to the non-partisan N.C. Coalition for a Moratorium, more than one in six death row inmates had lawyers who have been disbarred or disciplined while less than 1 percent of all lawyers in the state ever receive such severe penalties. As tends to be the case throughout the country, most death row inmates are sentenced to death for murdering a white person despite the fact that white people only represent a minority of all murder victims. Impoverished men and women, moreover, are far more likely to end up on death row than are wealthier—and usually whiter—defendants.
Thus how can we fail to review a system that is clearly biased against racial and ethnic minorities? How can we sit idly by while innocent people are sentenced to death? How can we fail to act when there are simple steps we can take to improve our justice system?
This Wednesday, March 30, is Moratorium Lobby Day in Raleigh. The N.C. Coalition for a Moratorium will be holding brief sessions explaining the proposed legislation in the Museum of History and then leading supporters over to the Legislative Building in order to meet with their state legislators.
Even if you cannot attend Lobby Day in Raleigh this Wednesday, you can e-mail and/or write your state legislator expressing your support for the bill. Even if you are not registered in North Carolina, you can write to the Durham state legislators and join the N.C. Coalition for a Moratorium at www.ncmoratorium.org.
The Talmud, rabbinical commentary on the Old Testament, teaches us that “saving one life is like saving an entire world.” By supporting the moratorium, you can help save the world many times over.
Adam Yoffie is a Trinity junior.
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