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District attorney pursues death penalty despite odds

October 14, 2018

ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. (AP) — Despite the odds, a district attorney is pursuing the death penalty for the four prisoners charged with killing a manager, a mechanic and two corrections officers in the deadliest prison escape attempt in the state’s history.

The case meets almost every standard for capital punishment, said Andrew Womble, district attorney for northeastern North Carolina.

But the reality is that it’s been 12 years since an inmate was executed in North Carolina, according to the state’s Department of Corrections. The state has 141 inmates on death row. The oldest case goes back to 1985, and the most recent one is from 2016, according to the state.

“The death penalty is all but extinct in North Carolina,” according to a report by The Center for Death Penalty Litigation, a Durham, N.C. nonprofit. “It is a relic of another era.”

For the district attorney, the effort is worth pursuing. The circumstances of the brutal killings, he said, are enough to justify the punishment he is seeking.

“These four scream for the death penalty,” Womble said in an interview this week. “I feel incredibly confident about this case.”

A year ago today, four prisoners started a fire inside the Pasquotank Correctional Institution north of Elizabeth City and attempted to escape. During the chaos, four employees were killed with hammers and scissors from a sewing plant inside the facility off U.S. 17 where the prisoners worked.

Mikel Brady, Jonathan Monk, Seth J. Frazier and Wisezah Buckman were charged with first-degree murder. Killed were Veronica Darden, manager of the sewing plant, Geoffrey Howe, a mechanic, and corrections officers Justin Smith and Wendy Shannon. All four prisoners were serving time for violent crimes.

The prison was short 84 positions, about a quarter of the recommended staff, according to a report released in January by the The National Institute of Corrections. One correctional officer and three staff members oversaw 30 inmates at the sewing plant where they made high-visibility vests for highway workers and embroidered uniforms. Deadly tools such as scissors with 6-inch blades and claw hammers were distributed by inmates rather than staff, as required, according to the report. Prisoners were able to come and go from the sewing area without a search. Doors to other parts of the prison that should have been secured were left unlocked.

The prisoners used hammers and scissors to bash the victims in the head and chest, according to autopsy reports. One was stabbed more than 65 times, according to one autopsy report.

Prison administrator Felix Taylor and his second-in command Colbert Respass were removed from their posts. Taylor was reassigned and Respass retired. Dennis Daniels, an experienced North Carolina prison administrator, was appointed to lead the Pasquotank facility.

On Wednesday, The Virginian-Pilot confirmed that the families of the victims have hired lawyers.

“This was a tragedy waiting to happen,” Cate Edwards, of the Raleigh law firm Edwards Kirby, said in an email Wednesday. She is the daughter of former senator and presidential candidate John Edwards.

“We are working on taking broad legal action because four people needlessly lost their lives,” she said. “These people were public servants and deserved better, safer working conditions from this state.”

Chicago attorney Donnya Banks is co-counsel for the families of Darden, Smith and Shannon. Banks had no comment.

In laying out his argument for the death penalty, Womble, the district attorney, said that nine of 11 aggravating factors needed in such a case apply, though no trial date has been set. Those circumstances include that the acts were cruel, they endangered many people and were committed against prison officers, he said. A jury only needs one factor to give a death sentence, he said.

The deadly escape was premeditated, he said. The people killed were “sympathetic victims,” he said, rather than criminals killing other criminals. The prisoners were captured on the spot just after the murders.

“This is not a ‘who-done-it’ case,” Womble said. “We got it all.”

Rep. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan supports Womble. Steinburg, who represents Pasquotank County, said he has spoken extensively with family members and correctional officers about the escape attempt.

“These were brutal, brutal murders,” he said. “One woman was nearly decapitated. I think as people become aware of the details of this case, it will change a lot of hearts and minds.”

Executions in North Carolina have been stalled by lawsuits over racial bias and lethal injection drugs, said Gretchen Engel, executive director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation.

Six capital cases await a hearing before the state’s Supreme Court to decide if race played a role in jury selection. A study showed the state’s prosecutors struck black jurors at roughly double the rate of others, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Additionally, a lawsuit is pending in Wake County Superior Court where several prisoners claim lethal injection is cruel and unusual punishment, Engel said.

“There will be no executions as long as they are pending in court,” she said.

While Engel acknowledges extreme murder cases, the system as a whole remains flawed, she said.

“You’re bound to have arbitrary results,” she said.

One of the primary cases cited is that of Henry McCollum, who spent 30 years on death row for the murder and rape of an 11-year-old girl before DNA evidence exonerated him in 2014.

In the 1990s, most death row inmates were sentenced under different laws, The Center for Death Penalty Litigation report said. Legislation passed since then guarantees that death row defendants get trained defense attorneys and have the right to see all evidence in their cases, among other things.

A 2013 survey showed 68 percent of North Carolina residents supported replacing capital punishment with life without parole as long as the offender worked and paid restitution to the victim’s family, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.

But the Pasquotank prison break attempt also raised questions about allowing violent offenders to work.

Another argument against executions? Defendants can be imprisoned for life and not harm anyone, Womble said.

“These guys can’t say that,” he said of those accused in the Pasquotank County case. “They were in prison.”

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Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, http://pilotonline.com

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