Death penalty appellate lawyer Paul M. Green wants to prevent North Carolina from making what might be a grievous mistake–the execution of an innocent man. Green’s client, death row inmate Charles Walker, 39, is scheduled to be executed Friday at 2 a.m. in Raleigh’s Central Prison for the 1992 murder of Elmon Tito Davidson Jr. Like his grandfather before him, Green has gone to the governor to plead for clemency for a condemned man.
Green, a Durham lawyer who represents eight death row clients, researched a 1941 capital case in which William Mason Wellman came within hours of dying in what was then Central Prison’s gas chamber. Wellman, an African American living in Washington, D.C., was sentenced to death for raping Cora Sowers, a white woman who lived in Statesville, a crime he could not have committed because he was at work at his Washington, D.C., job when the rape occurred.
Despite having a foolproof alibi, the trial judge in Wellman’s case refused a defense lawyer’s request for time to prove his client’s innocence, and Wellman was convicted and sentenced to die. With no legal training, playwright Paul E. Green researched Wellman’s case and took his findings to then-Gov. J. Melville Broughton.
Three days prior to Wellman’s Nov. 20, 1942, execution date, Broughton met with a clemency delegation that included Paul E. Green, UNC professor Guy B. Johnson and Wellman’s appellate counsel, Hosea V. Price of Winston-Salem.
In a letter to Broughton, Wellman wrote: “Dear Sire, to your honor, I have been tried an sentence to die in the gas chir. . . . for a crime I did not commit. . . . I am innocent of this crime. So I want you to look into this an give me a chance.”
Broughton did give Wellman a chance. He permitted lawyers the time to check out Wellman’s alibi, and in 1943, Broughton gave Wellman a full and unconditional pardon.
In an account of the case published in The News & Observer, grandson Paul M. Green wrote:
“Wellman returned to the Washington area and came back to North Carolina in 1971 only to claim compensation for his two years of wrongful incarceration. He was awarded the maximum amount allowed by North Carolina law: $986.40. He died in the late 1970s at the age of about 70. The man who attacked Cora Sowers was never apprehended.”
While the case of Charles Walker is unlike Wellman’s, Green sees one major similarity between this case and the one his grandfather worked on.
“That family history has made it very clear to me that mistakes can be made, and mistakes can be made by people who mean well,” Green says. “This is exactly the kind of case where all the danger signs are there.”
The danger signs Green sees include the fact that no physical evidence linked Walker to Davidson’s murder. Walker was sent to death row solely on the basis of the testimony of those who say they helped Walker shoot Davidson, slit his throat and dispose of his body in a dumpster. Davidson’s body was never recovered. No fingerprints, bloodstains, DNA, gunshot residue, ballistics evidence, hair fibers or anything else was ever presented at trial tying Walker to the crime.
Like his grandfather before him, Green also went to a North Carolina governor to plead for the life of a man who was sentenced to death only on the basis of testimony given by codefendants. Green said he and others told Gov. Mike Easley that it would be unprecedented in the modern era for the state to execute someone solely on the basis of witness testimony.
“The main theme of our clemency petition and of our conversation with Gov. Easley was that there is just too much risk of making a mistake here,” Green said. “Even if the courts found that there was no legal error requiring a new trial, you still have only the word of people who were involved in this crime to go on, and that’s both as to Charles Walker’s involvement, the extent of his involvement and the nature of the crime itself.
“So we know nothing about this case except for what the people who were involved told us; none of them reliable.”
In many states with a death penalty, including Texas, defendants cannot be convicted in cases where the only evidence is the uncorroborated testimony of accomplices. In some states, Walker might not even have faced trial for Davidson’s murder, said UNC law professor Richard Rosen.
“If this were Texas, he could not even be convicted,” Rosen told The Winston-Salem Journal.
Green says he’s hopeful that the legal facts of this case will sway Easley.
“When we say ‘risk of error,’ we’re not just talking about risk in the abstract,” Green says. “We’re talking about risk of error that we have never been willing to expose ourselves to in North Carolina, at least in the modern era.
“We’ve never actually proceeded to execution in a case where we’re relying entirely on accomplice testimony. We’ve never done it. What we’re talking about is a great risk of error. There are two risks in this case; first is that we execute somebody who actually did not commit this crime. Second, that we execute somebody who in fact was involved in the crime, but whose involvement was greatly exaggerated by the witnesses for their own purposes.”
In addition, lawyers have argued that Walker should receive clemency because he has a history of paranoid schizophrenia. Walker was hospitalized for schizophrenia as a child, and he is still “chronically mentally ill,” Green said. Two former N.C. Supreme Court justices, James G. Exum Jr. and J. Phil Carlton, asked Easley to commute Walker’s sentence to life.
“To spare Walker’s life and impose a sentence of life imprisonment without parole is particularly appropriate because of the role Walker’s long-standing mental illness–paranoid schizophrenia–played in the proceeding leading to his sentence of death,” Exum wrote in a clemency petition to Easley.
Green said Davidson’s remains might be found someday, and an autopsy might prove Davidson wasn’t killed in the way the witnesses say he was killed. That would mean Walker could be executed on the basis of false testimony, Green said.
“We’re taking a gamble if we execute this man, and it’s an illustration of the limits of our ability to know the truth.”
Easley is expected to announce his decision on clemency sometime Thursday if all appeals are exhausted in Walker’s case.
“I’m finding myself excited about the legal issues that we have to present,” Green said. “I think this is a great case for clemency.”
Green was asked if he is hopeful that his client’s life will be spared. “Absolutely,” he replied.