When Chapel Hill defense attorney Marilyn Ozer first got involved in death penalty appellate work around 1990, she didn't think she'd be at it very long.
"Fifteen years ago I never would believe that we would still have the death penalty today," Ozer says. "It's not just that I hoped. I was sure there wouldn't be a death penalty, because it is so uncivilized. I had more faith in the citizens at that time that they wouldn't allow this to continue."
She was wrong.
On Sept. 7, Ozer sent out an e-mail under the subject "Many execution dates this fall." Just weeks before the U.S. Supreme Court returned to session, Ozer wanted folks to know that time was running out for as many as seven Central Prison death row inmates.
"The news is not good for the next few months," Ozer wrote. "Three men will probably have their cert petitions denied by the U.S. Supreme Court on the first day of the new Supreme Court term in October. Three more may be denied shortly thereafter and another will probably be denied around Christmas.
"As that might mean seven executions within a few months, I thought it would be good if we all got together and did some advance planning."
Ozer also helps plan execution eve prayer services in Chapel Hill. On Oct. 13, the Department of Corrections announced execution dates for three men: Steven Van McHone, 35 (Nov. 11); Elias Hanna Syriani, 67 (Nov. 18), and Kenneth Lee Boyd, 57 (Dec. 2). All were founded guilty of murdering family members.
The news of the execution dates comes on the heels of a failed effort this summer to get a moratorium on executions passed in the General Assembly, a measure that would have stopped executions for at least two years.
David Neal, a lawyer and executive director of the Fair Trial Initiative who is also a spokesman for the N.C. Coalition for a Moratorium, has bleak news. There could be as many as a dozen to 15 executions carried out at Central Prison in the next year, he said.
In the wake of the moratorium's defeat, Neal says the coalition "will continue to seek a halt to executions until the legislature can take a hard look at how to fix some of the identified problems in how it's administered ... We have a lot of execution dates that will be coming up in the next year, and we're all committed to making sure that the governor and General Assembly understand that its not fair to proceed with these executions while questions about innocence and fairness remain unanswered and uninvestigated by the state government.
"We will take the initiative to suggest specific reforms that we think could at least move us in the direction of fixing those problems," he says, "but again, it doesn't make sense to execute people while those reforms are on the table, while we're considering legislation that might impact the cases of people currently on death row."
Neal says in Syriani's case "very compelling mitigation evidence went uninvestigated by his trial counsel," evidence that likely would have spared his life.
"We have new standards and a new system for appointing lawyers now in North Carolina, but most of the people on death row didn't get the benefit of that reform," Neal says. "That's been true for many of the executions that have proceeded since the idea of a moratorium has been on the table. People are not getting adequate representation, so in Syriani's case that meant the lawyers didn't fully investigate his background or present evidence about his cultural background and his mental health evidence, about post-traumatic stress disorder that would have been very mitigating and certainly could have convinced the jury to not give death in that case."
Syriani was sentenced to death in 1991 for murdering his wife, Teresa Yousef Syriani, in the presence of their 10-year-old son. The couple's four children have since forgiven their father and want Gov. Mike Easley to spare his life.
McHone was sentenced to death for the 1991 shooting deaths of his mother and stepfather. One of McHone's trial lawyers was later disbarred. His appellate lawyers say a critical issue in McHone's trial was his intoxication and inability to premeditate the murders. After the trial, McHone's lawyers learned that the state had withheld evidence about McHone's "extreme intoxication."
"In addition to the presence of prosecutorial misconduct and an incompetent defense at trial, the jury wanted to give him life without parole and would have done so had it been an option," says Ken Rose, McHone's attorney and executive director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation. "Today, Gov. Easley has the ability to grant the jury's intent and commute McHone's sentence to life without parole."
Boyd was sentenced to death in Rockingham County in 1994 for the murders of his estranged wife and father-in-law. Boyd, a Vietnam veteran, suffered from severe depression and alcohol abuse at the time of the crime. A juror from his trial stated recently that the death penalty was not appropriate in his case. Boyd's lawyers say Boyd has not received any disciplinary infractions in prison, "making him a good candidate for life in prison."
Steve Dear, executive director of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, said the movement to abolish the death penalty will eventually win out.
"We are in a longterm process of winning," he says. "This year only six people have been sentenced to death. A decade ago it was three dozen people sentenced to death every year. That's a victory.
"That we lost the moratorium this year, and those executions are coming up, I feel very sorry about that, but I'm determined, and we're determined to keep expanding the struggle."
This weekend is the national weekend of faith and action against the death penalty, and about two dozen congregations in the South are participating in events.