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Sammy Flippen's clemency bid

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No two capital murder cases are alike, but even at that, Sammy Flippen's case seems altogether different. Flippen is scheduled to be executed after midnight on Friday, Aug. 18 at Central Prison in Raleigh. He was convicted in 1995 of killing his 2-year-old stepdaughter, Britnie. He was 25 at the time. He's 36 now. He maintained his innocence then, and still maintains it. He says Britnie fell out of her chair. The prosecution says--and a Forsyth County jury agreed--that Flippen hit her so hard in the abdomen that the blow split her pancreas.

So who is Sammy Flippen?

Last Thursday, when prosecutors and defense lawyers came to the Capitol to meet with Gov. Mike Easley, the defense carefully avoided saying he's innocent. Rather, they argued--in attorney Richard Greene's words--that "whatever happened, this was not intentional, not a premeditated murder."

They pointed to other, similar fatalities in which parents hit their children, none of which has ever led to an execution in North Carolina, and most of which result in brief prison sentences.

Flippen was offered a plea bargain to second-degree murder and a life sentence, but he turned it down, attorney Tom Loflin emphasized.

Their petition for clemency, however, paints a picture of Flippen as a young man who would never have struck his wife's daughter, or anybody else. The 28 affidavits from family, friends and pastors all read like Flippen's friend Paul Huffman's: Sammy was a good guy who was never in trouble, and always well-liked, growing up in the Gospel Light Christian Church and school in Walkertown; after he graduated high school, Flippen got a good job at Penn Engineering, played basketball at the YMCA, loved his stepkids, and was a faithful Christian.

Before his arrest, Flippen had never even had a traffic ticket. On the other hand, Flippen's first wife testified at his trial that he was abusive to her, though she never brought a charge against him.

"I believe in the death penalty, but Sammy is not the type of person who deserves to be there," Huffman wrote. "Sammy has never been the type of person who could have ever deliberately or intentionally hurt Britnie ... never the type of person to lose his mind or have an explosive temper. He was cool and level-headed and never lost his head, especially with Britnie."

There are 27 others, two of them from cops.

Jill Wilkes, a childhood friend of Sammy Flippen - PHOTO BY BOB GEARY
One of them is from Jill Wilkes, a 35-year-old nurse, who also grew up at Gospel Light with Flippen. She's leading the campaign to persuade Easley to spare his life.

Flippen tells her he's innocent, and she believes him absolutely. "I know him," she says simply. "I've known him for 25 years."

Wilkes watched Flippen's sentencing retrial (his original sentence was overturned because the judge mis-instructed the jury), and she heard the prosecutors "make him out to be someone he is not"--in short, a vicious killer.

It opened her eyes to what a mismatch a trial can be if the prosecution is, as in Flippen's case, "very believable, very theatrical, driving home their point," and, meanwhile, the defense just isn't as good. (It wasn't Loflin or Greene, who are appellate, not trial, lawyers.)

Wilkes isn't a former girlfriend, and after being Flippen's good friend in church and school, she lost direct touch with him when she went away to college. Is it possible, while she was away, that he changed?

"No," she says lightly. "If he did, he's changed back, because I've been visiting him for 10 years, and he's the same Sammy."

When Flippen was sentenced, "I felt a nudging in my heart, which I believe was from God, but--that I should reach to Sammy, and be a friend to him. It been the best decision I could make, for both of us," Wilkes says.

So she prays that Easley will see her friend as she does. Not as an innocent man, because he was convicted. But not guilty of this crime either.

"Because there's just no way," Wilkes says, pausing over those two words, "he did this cold, calculated murder."

Jill Wilkes, a childhood friend of Sammy Flippen, is keeping a blog at www.savesammy.blogspot.com.

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