Did Marcus Carter murder Amelia Lewis in an alley behind a Goldsboro hotel bar in 1989? The circumstantial evidence that he did is substantial, but not definitive. Blood spots were found on a sweatshirt taken from his house, according to the police, and they matched her blood type--a B-type found in 2 percent of the population. But the FBI lab said the blood sample it tested was too small to allow for a DNA match. That was a decade ago. No effort has been made by the state to retrieve the blood sample and test it again using the new, pinpoint DNA technology.
Worse, the jury that convicted Carter heard only the state's side of the evidence, because Carter chose to defend himself and challenged almost nothing, including the fact that the prosecution rejected every prospective juror who wasn't white. "You can't trust the evidence, because it wasn't really tested in court," says Ken Rose, director of the N.C. Center for Death Penalty Litigation. That was Carter's second trial. In the first one, where he was defended by lawyers, a lone juror--a prison guard--held out for acquittal for eight days, hanging the jury 11-1. In between, the state offered a deal: life in prison for a guilty plea. Carter either rejected that offer, never heard it, or never read a letter sent to him in prison that contained it. In any event, Carter's lawyers never saw him after the first trial, and he said he didn't want them for his second.
Even in the first trial, says Bill Cotter, a Durham lawyer who (with Mark Edwards) represents Carter on appeal, the Wayne County lawyers who argued his case did a lousy job, mainly because they accepted the police evidence without hiring an independent investigator for the defense. Carter's conviction on the murder charge grew directly out of his guilty plea to a rape committed the same night in the same area an hour later. The rape victim identified him, the police testified, and the two crimes were of a piece: Carter attempted to rape Lewis, the state charged, and Lewis' body was found half-naked, left pant leg and panties down, the same as in the later rape. White hair, however, was found on Amelia Lewis' left leg. Carter is half-black, half-Korean. The rape kit on Lewis was negative. Her body was discovered three days after she was murdered. Police, responding to a report of a woman screaming, searched the alley around the time the murder is supposed to have occurred but found nothing. The victim of the later rape testified in Carter's first trial; at his second, the state was allowed to read her testimony into the record when she refused to appear.
The N.C. Supreme Court upheld Carter's conviction and sentence. Later, when Cotter and Edwards attempted to get a Superior Court judge in Wayne County to consider whether Carter's sketchy trial had deprived him of his constitutional rights, the judge--not the original trial judge--rejected their 205-page brief without even taking it to his office. As they looked on, he read through it on the bench, then ruled against them on 10 separate issues. A three-judge panel of the federal Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals refused to overturn his ruling, although they pronounced themselves "deeply troubled by the apparently cursory review" given to issues "properly presented for the first time" to any court. But, the federal panel said, the judge could just as easily have taken the brief to his office and ignored it, and "we would be none the wiser." Says Cotter: "Sure. But in this case, we are the wiser."
Carter's life up to his conviction was a mess. He was born in Korea in 1968. His father was a black soldier, his mother Korean. When his father abandoned her, she gave him up for adoption. His adoptive parents, another soldier stationed in Korea and Shirley Hill, soon split up, and Hill came back to Goldsboro with Carter when he was 4. Carter saw his father on and off for several years after that, but when the father remarried and had other children, Carter started getting in trouble, and the father disowned him--a fact Hill didn't know until his trial. She believes the source of his troubles was trying, and failing, to win back the affections of his adoptive father.
Then the downward spiral was on, and Marcus got hooked on drugs and alcohol, dropped out of high school, went to juvenile prison on an assault charge, worked in a poultry plant when he got out, and fathered two daughters out of wedlock. There's no doubt he beat their mother up from time to time, and another girlfriend as well, while he was addicted to drugs. When he was in juvenile prison, he was diagnosed as a "Willie M." case--mentally ill and violence-prone--but treatment wasn't available there, and Carter skipped out on scheduled sessions with counselors once he was released.
Since his conviction for Lewis' murder, though, says Sara Sanders, a social worker with the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, Carter has turned his life around. He's never admitted or denied the killing, as far as she knows, but he does take responsibility for the wreckage of his teenage years. "He remembers the boy he was, and the wasteland that drugs made of his life later on, and he feels a great sense of sadness about that," Sanders says.
Shirley Hill continues to stand by Carter, as do his two daughters, now teenagers themselves, according to Sanders. "They've been having some good conversations," Sanders says. From her description now, and Hill's at his trial, once Carter was off drugs, he showed himself to be intelligent, serious and determined to teach himself how to think about his problems. "He's done all he could to educate himself, given the very limited resources that are available to him on death row," Sanders says.
Carter declined an interview with The Independent. Sanders says he hopes consideration of his pending execution will somehow help the chances of others on death row to be spared the death sentence.
Edwards and Cotter have an appeal pending that raises constitutional challenges to Carter's indictment, and a meeting with Gov. Hunt is pending at which they will urge him to grant clemency in the case.